The closing job in Atlanta this summer has been the riskiest gig this side of "Spinal Tap Drummer." John Smoltz couldn't get his shoulder right and went for surgery. Peter Moylan blew out his elbow in April. Rafael Soriano visited the DL three times. When Bobby Cox grabs the bullpen phone, introductions come before instructions.
Gonzalez started the year in sick bay, coming back from a Tommy John surgery last summer. Expectations were mild when he joined the Braves in mid-June, but he's been outstanding from the word go: 18.1 IP, 14 H, 5 ER, 3 BB, 21 K. He's clearly the ninth-inning guy for Cox going forward, it's just a matter of getting some late leads for the left-hander to protect. The Diamondbacks looked overmatched during Thursday's 1-2-3 ninth, and Arizona announcer Mark Grace was effusive with his praise.
The Braves are last in the majors with just 16 saves on their 53 wins, but that's a major fluke at play. A random ballclub will generate a save on about 50 percent of its wins - I looked at the data from 2005-2008 and it's a very reliable ratio. Winning teams, losing teams, it doesn't matter - add it all up and half of the wins produce a save for someone. That doesn't mean the designated closer is collecting the spoils in all cases, and obviously there's variance with respect to how many close games a team plays, but when we see a club like Atlanta stuck on a 30 percent save-to-win rate, we know it's an outlier.
At the end of the day, this explains why I like closers from losing or unpopular teams so much in this imaginary baseball game. These closers usually don't cost a lot, and if they're handled with the cushy ninth-inning funnel job, plenty of saves can follow. Is Brian Wilson a great pitcher? Maybe not. But if he's merely asked to get three outs before Armageddon in San Francisco, he'll get the job done more often than not. It's really not that hard to finish a ballgame, especially when there's no one on base and you often have some wiggle room (anyone inheriting a 3-run lead for the ninth will convert about 97 percent of the time. It's documented, you can look it up.)
As for Gonzalez, he's not just a journeyman plugged into a protected role - there's special talent here. Staying healthy has been a problem for much of his career, but when he's on the mound, batters get dominated (10.6 K/9, 0.5 HR/9, .210 batting average against). He's generally owned lefties, and righties haven't done much better. The only thing Gonzalez needs for a save flurry out the door in 2008 is a little luck, and maybe Thursday's result is a pushing-off point. Don't buy into Atlanta's outlier; believe in the last closer standing down by Peachtree Street.
• Joel Hanrahan is another "closer on the cheap" that can make you a tidy profit with; the pesky Nats aren't as bad as you think, and Manny Acta will funnel the ninth-inning ops to Hanrahan. Washington gave Hanrahan a pair of three-run leads to protect in a doubleheader at Colorado and the power righty didn't disappoint, retiring six of seven hitters and pounding the zone (15 strikes on 21 pitches). The Jon Rauch trade got hammered in a lot of places, but if Hanrahan turns out to be smooth in the ninth inning and Emilio Bonifacio turns into a legitimate leadoff man, perception will shift quickly. Bonifacio went 4-for-10 with a stolen base in the sweep.• One more National to have on your radar - Lastings Milledge, the mercurial but supremely talented OF who's back from his groin injury. The .250 average gets a lot of fantasy owners off the scent, but don't miss the power and speed combination here (11 round-trippers, 14 bags over just 93 games). We're looking at another Mike Cameron, a guy who can help mixed-leaguers over the final seven weeks. Milledge was the star of Washington's sweep Thursday, collecting five hits, two homers, and five RBIs.
• Johan Santana lost his win Thursday when the New York bullpen couldn't hold the lead, but it was another strong outing for the Ace of Flushing (7 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 3 BB, 7K). While Santana hasn't been dominant in his first Mets season, he's still one of the five best pitchers on the planet; let's not overreact to his 9-7 record (the bullpen has squandered six possible victories for Santana). A lot of clubs would love to have a left-handed horse at the front of the rotation, standing with a 2.85 ERA and working around seven innings a start. Santana has quietly improved over his second and third trip around the league, and I think he's going to remind everyone down the stretch why the Mets pay him all that moolah.
• Brad Ziegler throws up zeroes, Brad Ziegler blogs, and Brad Ziegler gets lot of pub in this column. He did his usual thing Thursday (scoreless inning, three ground-ball outs), working around a couple of singles. The Athletics lost their 10th straight game anyway, but if they have a late lead over the weekend, you get the idea Ziegler will be one of the guys used to get key outs. Will that equal save chances? Only Bob Geren can answer that.
• Speed Round: Joel Zumaya worked in the seventh inning at Chicago Thursday and it was Fernando Rodney who picked up the four-out save. In other words, the committee lives in the Detroit bullpen . . . Dan Uggla is a pro and I don't think there's anything to an All-Star Game hangover, but the fact is this: he's hitting .171 since that fateful night at Yankee Stadium . . . Chris Volstad isn't striking a ton of guys out, but that power sinker is real. He worked six scoreless innings at Philadelphia Thursday, en route to his fourth quality start in five turns . . . I watched most of Jeff Francis's return to the mound (5.1 IP, 8 H, 5 R) and didn't see anything that makes him mixed-league worthy right now . . . Ubaldo Jimenez struggled with his control Thursday (six walks) and finally hit a rough start, but I still think this guy needs to be owned, and trusted, in any mixed league. He's got the stuff to miss bats, and his lofty ground-ball rate limits the damage even when opponents make contact . . . The Red Sox claimed Brian Giles off waivers, which gives them a 48-hour window to work something out with San Diego. Giles won't have mixed-league value in Boston unless a few people hit the DL . . . Mike Mussina has always been a great interview, and he still pitches a pretty fine game of baseball. I wish I saw this comeback story back in March . . . Jody Gerut doesn't want to leave New York; he went deep three times in the Mets series, including Thursday's game-tying shot off Scott Schoeneweis in the ninth inning.
• Injury Lap: Chipper Jones (hamstring) feels pretty close to 100 percent, but Bobby Cox might limit Jones to pinch-hitting as he gets back in uniform . . . Mark Grudzielanek (torn ankle ligament) likely won't play again this year . . . David Murphy's sprained right knee pushed him to the DL, and he'll miss 2-4 weeks. Don't be afraid to grab Marlon Byrd as a nifty fill-in for the balance of the month . . . Andy Pettitte downplayed talk of a sore arm and says he's not going to miss a turn . . . Roy Oswalt's hip looked fine over seven innings Thursday (91 pitches, two runs). Pitching against the Reds obviously agrees with him; he's 21-1 against Cincinnati. Try to spin that, Les Nessman . . . Michael Bourn (ankle) got his first start in two weeks but nothing came of it. He went 0-for-5 and is down to .229 . . . A sore thumb kept Jack Cust out Thursday . . . Justin Upton (oblique) might start a rehab assignment early next week . . . Carl Crawford (hamstring) got back on the field and went 1-for-3 with a walk and a run scored. No steals, though.
• The Blue Jays probably aren't going to make the playoffs, but this is a team no one wants to play right now. A.J. Burnett is 8-2 since Cito Gaston took over, albeit he won without his best stuff Thursday against Oakland. Vernon Wells will start a rehab assignment this weekend and isn't far from a return. Alex Rios has been a dynamic player over the last ten weeks. Be very careful with this group from the YYZ.
• Two more hits and a stolen base for Jeremy Hermida (he also drew a walk for the third straight day). I might have to put a stop to this run by picking him up. He's got a .943 OPS in the second half.
• Handshakes: B.J. Ryan (22), Kevin Gregg (25), Mariano Rivera (28), Jonathan Broxton (6). And let's not forget J.J. Putz, who pitched a scoreless ninth, then got a victory when Raul Ibanez provided his daily highlight. Touch them all, Raul, and we'll catch you on the flip side.