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Closing Time: Ernesto Frieri, back from the brink

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Rise and fire, Frieri (USAT)

Joe Smith hasn't done anything wrong as the stand-in Angels closer. He's converted three chances in a row, allowing just a couple of baserunners. Low stress, easy conversions.

Check that, there's been one mistake. The Halos wanted Smith to close out Monday's 4-1 victory over the Yankees, but Smith was unavailable due to stomach discomfort. Instead of throwing (up in the bullpen), he was, well, throwing up in the bullpen.

And just like that, Ernesto Frieri is back in our save-chasing lives.

Frieri has been on point since his late-April demotion from the ninth, stringing together four straight hitless appearances. And now you can make it five, adding Monday's smooth save to the mix. Frieri struck out a pair of Yanks (Ellsbury, Teixeira) and worked a 1-2-3 inning, marking his territory nicely. This is how you get the ninth inning back.

Manager Mike Scioscia seems to prefer Frieri eventually settling in as the full-time closer, perhaps because Smith's skills are especially valuable in a rover position. Maybe Scioscia is a rare manager who realizes his best reliever doesn't have to be the guy in the ninth, especially when a multiple-run lead is on the table. Be aggressive with a relief ace. If you care to read some of Scioscia's somewhat-evasive comments on the matter, you can go here (OC Register, from the weekend) or here (MLB.com, from Monday evening).

For most fantasy owners, it's a case of hurry up and wait. Frieri and Smith are both owned in over 50 percent of Yahoo leagues (64 and 57 percent, respectively); in the most competitive of pools, you can't add either of these guys. But the temperature of the ninth inning is the soul of Closing Time, so that's why we started here tonight. Oh, and there's a cleanup on Aisle 7.

If you're looking for a more available save-chaser to gamble on, maybe Cleveland's Cody Allen is your man. Allen has been strong in a set-up role this year (13.1 IP, 5 BB, 20 K, 2.03 ERA, 1.28 WHIP), and there's been recurring problems with closer John Axford. Allen is free to grab in three-quarters of Yahoo leagues.

Axford is 9-for-11 in save chances, but that masks a lot of mediocre pitching. He's carrying a 4.85 ERA and 1.54 WHIP, and he's walked 10 men over 13 innings. And his recent blowups have been emphatic, leaving a mark: he allowed a three-run homer to fritter away Sunday's game, then surrendered another tater to decide Monday's 1-0 loss to Minnesota. Bloop singles can be forgiven. Ongoing gopheritis is a problem.

The Indians are another club that doesn't necessarily need its best reliever tied to the ninth-inning gig, so Axford might get a fair amount of time to fix things. And even if a timeout happens, it could always be a temporary one. That said, Allen's numbers are worth owning in deeper leagues (handshakes or no handshakes), and he's the obvious successor to the closing throne if and when Terry Francona hits the breaking point.

The last few days have, finally, given us some definition in the Toronto bullpen. Sergio Santos's closing days are kaput, that was the simplest conclusion. Brett Cecil has emerged as the temporary baton holder – at least the committee chair – and he posted a smooth save Monday at Philadelphia (clean inning, one strikeout). Cecil has been a little wild at times (eight unintentional walks in 14.2 innings), but those 24 strikeouts make an impression. The lefty has a robust ground-ball rate, too.

Cecil figures to relinquish the gig when Casey Janssen returns, and that should be fairly soon. Janssen (back) started a rehab assignment Monday at Double-A New Hampshire, dodging a couple of hits in a scoreless inning. Thirteen of his 17 pitches were strikes. They're not booing, they're mooing.

The plan is for Janssen to get maybe 4-5 tune-ups before returning to Toronto. With that in mind, Cecil (13-percent owned) makes sense as a short-term rental in leagues where it's blood-for-saves. And should Janssen encounter a slump or injury setback, Cecil could slide back into a meatier role. The southpaw was effective in the middle of the pen last year (2.82 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 70 K in 60.2 IP).

Often times we're willing to overlook a poor average if a player provides category juice, and Michael Saunders is that kind of hitter. He's collected 31 homers and 34 steals over the last two years for the Mariners, despite a couple of mediocre batting averages (.247, .236). And while Seattle hasn't always made a firm commitment to Saunders in the lineup, he has been getting run – and taking advantage – over the last five days.

Saunders landed in the leadoff spot May 1 and all he's done is hit: 10-for-23, four runs, four RBIs. He's struck out a modest three times in that span (contact is generally his biggest bugaboo). Abraham Almonte (the previous leadoff man) was demoted after Sunday's game, clearing Saunders's path a little bit. The M's kept Saunders in the lineup even against a lefty on Saturday.

Atypically, Saunders has yet to generate much category juice this year: he's 1-for-4 on the bases, has just one homer. But now that he's settling into a regular gig and a good batting spot, there's a case for kicking some tires, at least in deeper leagues. We're not one of those columns that wants to throw a parade for the 99-percent superstars; we're trying to find a hidden gem or two. Saunders is rostered in just two percent of Yahoo leagues, so keep him in mind, at least when Seattle faces a right-hander (which is the case in eight of the next 12 games).

Speed Round: Maybe Jedd Gyorko is finally ready for Circle of Trust privileges: he's got a modest five-game hitting streak going, with two homers in the last three days . . . Yordano Ventura piled up 10 strikeouts over six innings at the San Diego sandbox, but had to settle for a no-decision (6 IP, 3 R, 1 HR). Greg Holland served up Gyorko's ninth-inning homer to extend the game, and the Padres eventually won it in the 12th inning. Let's assume this was Ned Yost's fault, somehow, and move along . . . Eric Hosmer is up to .296 on the year, and finally clubbed his first home run . . . Brad Miller remains below the Mendoza Line, but at least he stole a couple of bases . . . Martin Perez had the predictable breakdown in Colorado (5 IP, 7 H, 5 R, 2 HR). Troy Tulowitzki and Nolan Arenado took him deep, and Tulo added a second one against Texas reliever Shawn Tolleson . . . Daisuke Matsuzaka took a step back, allowing three runs (two earned) in a messy eighth inning at Miami. Jonathon Niese (7 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 6 K) had to settle for a no-decision, while Nathan Eovaldi (7 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 1 BB, 10 K) was let off the hook. Niese hosts Philly on the weekend (reasonable), while Eovaldi is at San Diego (yes, please) . . . Wilson Ramos (wrist) caught nine innings in a rehab game and should return at some point this week. Ramos has Top 10 catcher written all over him if he stays healthy, but you know the rub – he can't seem to stay on the field. Do you feel lucky? . . . Jean Segura was given a chance in the No. 2 slot and went 2-for-5 with a homer and steal. Batting position is so critical in the National League, especially with the rabbits. Scooter Gennett hit third (remember, Ryan Braun is on the DL) and posted a 3-1-1-0 line, with one walk. The Brewers collected eight runs in the victory over Arizona, so this arrangement might kick around for a while.

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