There might be a hundred different ways to blow a save in today's MLB. Sometimes it's cheap hits that beat you, sometimes it's a tight strike zone that leads to your undoing, sometimes you give away a game with wildness. All of them hurt, of course, taking away a game your team had started to mentally count as a win.
But when the last man standing in the bullpen starts throwing batting practice on the mound — when the blown save comes courtesy of the long ball — the scar cuts a little deeper. With that in mind, it's time to catch up with Hector Santiago, the rookie closer for the White Sox.
Santiago lost his innocence in Monday's 10-4 loss to Baltimore, blowing a ninth-inning lead and suffering his first blown save of the year. The two runs Santiago allowed weren't cheap at all — they were poorly-spotted fastballs that turned into souvenirs. Surging sleeper Nolan Reimold led off the inning with a blast into the left-field seats, and Adam Jones duplicated the act two outs later. The power-hitting Orioles might surprise some teams this year; they've already collected 18 homers, tops in baseball. (Matt Wieters, who looks absolutely terrific, broke the game open in the tenth, crushing a grand slam off Chicago reliever Zach Stewart. It was the second homer of the night for Wieters; if I were entering a fresh draft today, he'd be at the top of my catcher board.)
In Santiago's defense, he might have gotten unlucky on the Reimold at-bat. Replays indicated that Santiago probably threw what should have been strike three in the sequence, only to be denied by home plate umpire Lance Barrett (neither team was happy with Barrett's strike zone over the course of the night). But the two pitches that wound up in the seats were definite mistakes from Santiago, pitches that had too much of the plate and were shouting out "hit me" (go look at the Jones tater again). The Orioles were happy to oblige.
Santiago only has four innings on his 2012 resume, so it's ridiculously early to draw any conclusions. He does have six strikeouts against one walk, certainly a good indicator. But he's already allowed three homers in 12 matchups with right-handed hitters, and Alex Avila drove a Santiago pitch to the base of the center-field wall in Chicago's victory on Friday. U.S. Cellular Field is well known as a homer paradise, especially in the warm-weather months. If Santiago can't get the gopher problem under control, he might be reassigned to a different job in short order. (Carl Spackler faced the same problem in the spring of 1980).
Rookie manager Robin Ventura isn't going to panic off one bad outing, of course. Any appointed closer is going to get a longer leash than that. "The way I look at it is how he bounces back," Ventura told the Chicago Sun-Times. If the Pale Hose have a ninth-inning lead to protect Tuesday, you can bet Santiago will get the call.
That said, the outstanding depth of the White Sox bullpen has to be respected here. It's not like the club doesn't have alternatives. Matt Thornton has already rolled up 6.1 scoreless innings (no walks, four strikeouts) and Addison Reed hasn't been scored on in his five appearances. Jesse Crain also has to be listed somewhere on the speculation page, though he's already served up two homers (Wieters got him in the eighth inning Monday).
The save chase varies greatly in fantasy baseball, league to league. In deeper formats, all four Chicago relievers might already be rostered. In medium pools, you might want to look at a Santiago hedge right now (Reed or Thornton both have strong cases, with Crain the long shot play). In shallow formats, you can probably let the picture fully develop before you act on something. One size does not fit all when it comes to ninth-inning advice. Just recognize that Santiago's leash was probably chopped down significantly after Monday's defeat; if he has another mess come up quickly, we'll have a full-blown problem on our hands. We're not talking about Mariano Rivera or Jonathan Papelbon here; we're discussing a rookie who's made six appearances in the majors.
• These Justin Verlander starts are beginning to all look alike. Cruse through eight dominant innings, then amp up the drama for the ninth.
Verlander's first start came unraveled while he was in the dugout, none of his doing: Jose Valverde blew the save, then vultured win, against Boston. Last week's slip up was a team effort, with Verlander starting ninth-inning trouble, then watching Daniel Schlereth and Valverde apply the final dousing of gasoline. With Verlander still winless entering Monday's turn at Kansas City, he wasn't going to give up the ball without a fight.
And Jim Leyland certainly wasn't going to fight his ace, either.
Verlander held a 3-1 lead entering the bottom of the ninth, but the pesky Royals strung together a rally. Two singles (one of them an infield hit), one walk and one plunked batter put Verlander on the brink - lead down to 3-2, bases loaded, Alex Gordon up. Verlander fell behind 2-1 to Gordon before he rallied, throwing a gutsy change to even the count and then freezing Gordon with a fastball. Ballgame.
The final pitch clocked at 100 mph, as several did in the ninth inning. Verlander knows how to draw into the extra reserves when he needs to. And the clinching strikeout came on Verlander's 131st pitch of the night, a crazy number in today's game.
Mind you, big pitch counts come with the Verlander territory. He's now topped 100 pitches in 55 straight regular-season starts, an incredible run. We haven't seen a short outing from him since the Mets knocked him out in June of 2010. This is the very definition of a horse, a 6-foot-5, 225-pound dynamo who wants to go deep every fifth day.
But this game puts two ticklish questions into your mind. First of all, why would Leyland want to expose Verlander to such a heavy workload this early in the season? Why treat a mid-April game like it was the deciding night of the World Series? And how much does Leyland trust Valverde right now? Papa Grande's luck from 2011 is well-documented (he basically Magooed his way through a perfect save season; it doesn't pass the secondary analysis at all), and the deliberate closer has been knocked around through five appearances this year (5.79 ERA, 1.71 WHIP).
I understand Leyland's desire to trust his best players, and he probably wanted Verlander to have complete control of his fate after watching the bullpen do him wrong in the first two starts. But sometimes you can win the battle and lose the war. While Verlander's durability is probably less of a question than any starter in baseball, I'm surprised Leyland didn't consider the bigger picture in this game. If Verlander isn't hale and in top form come September and October, Detroit isn't going anywhere.
Valverde's job isn't in any jeopardy, mind you. The Tigers are still going to run him out there for plenty of ninth-inning saves, preferring to start him with a fresh frame, no inherited mess. But don't be surprised if Leyland continues to side with his meal ticket (Verlander) over his carnival closer (Valverde) when similar spots present themselves.
• Cory Luebke wasn't able to go deep in his two home starts, but he righted the ship nicely at Colorado on Monday, checking the Rockies over seven terrific innings (6 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 4 K). It might seem a little strange to see him struggling in San Diego but cruising in Coors Field, but that fits the pattern we've seen during his young career. Luebke carries a 4.01 ERA and 1.17 WHIP at Petco Park (covering 92 innings), but the numbers come down to 2.73 and 1.08 when traveling. This sounds like a monumental fluke to me; look for better home starts to come and stay the course for the breakthrough year we all expected a month ago. He'll be at home against Philadelphia on Saturday night, a fun matchup against Doc Halladay.
Chase Headley was the centerpiece of San Diego's offense Monday, stroking three doubles. He's working on an eight-game hitting streak and he's also collected 11 walks on the year. The window is narrowing on his breakout potential — he turns 28 next month, after all — but a .420 OBP and .553 slugging percentage play nicely in any format. If you want to play some head games, he's out there in 64 percent of Yahoo! leagues.
• The spin can go either way with Tim Lincecum right now; his third start had data to support anyone's argument. The Phillies jumped on him in the first inning, plating four runs; a mixup in the San Francisco outfield turned into one gift hit, but Lincecum didn't locate well and deserved to give up a crooked number. He settled down nicely after that, ultimately working six innings (8 H, 5 R, 1 BB, 6 K) and retiring 15 of the last 19 batters he faced. The velocity was sitting in the low 90s again, but it was encouraging to see Lincecum throw about 20 sliders (he ignored the pitch in spring training and hardly used it over his first two starts). I don't own Lincecum anywhere, but I'll endorse him for his road start at New York on Saturday.
• All we're asking for from Henry Rodriguez is a little consistency and a repeating delivery. If he can get his control into a reasonable area, his jaw-dropping stuff can take care of the rest. Rodriguez looked the closer part in Monday's 6-3 victory over Houston, working around a walk and throwing 12 of 17 pitches for strikes. Start the handshake line. Stephen Strasburg wasn't letter-perfect, but he gave us an acceptable six innings (6 H, 2 R, 1 BB, 5 K) and collected his second victory. Four shopping days until the next Strasmas; the franchise goes Saturday at home against Miami.
• Danny Duffy took the loss against Detroit (6.2 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 1 BB, 7 K, 2 HR) but he passed the eye test. His control is less than ideal, but he also has 15 punchouts through 12.2 innings (along with a 2.13 ERA and 1.03 WHIP). Toronto won't be an easy mark on Sunday, but I like him at Minnesota the following week. Duffy is owned in just 12 percent of Yahoo leagues; I'd certainly take him before his overrated teammate, Luke Hochevar.
Speed Round: Sevens were wild for Daniel Bard (seven walks, seven strikeouts), though the Rays only got him for one run in the Marathon Monday game. I'm not going near Bard as a starter until the control improves. James Shields (8.1 innings) and Rappin' Fernando Rodney (two outs around an intentional walk) combined to blank the Red Sox. … The Gardenhire Twins are basically the Washington Generals when they play the Yankees, so savor Monday's victory. Joe Mauer had three hits and a steal for Minnesota (along with that winning smile), while Justin Morneau crushed a homer to center field off Freddy Garcia . . . Ike Davis finally comes off the roto restricted list after homering twice in two days. The less-appealing Jason Bay has two taters in his last three starts. … Freddie Freeman was given a mental day off; he's hitting .162 with 13 strikeouts (against two walks) through 37 at-bats. … Is Chris Young this year's Curtis Granderson? He clocked his fifth homer Monday and pushed his average up to .405. … Kendrys Morales finally showed up, collecting three hits against Oakland including a three-run homer in the first inning (it's safer to homer in the first; there's no dogpile at home plate). The Angels added three runs in the bottom of the eighth, stealing a possible save chance away from Jordan Walden. The three true outcomes of Yoenis Cespedes (three homers, four walks, 15 whiffs) were given the night off. … Brandon Belt was allowed to start against Halladay (no pressure, kid) and went 1-for-3 with an RBI and a walk. He also struck out twice. Your move, Bruce Bochy. … B.J. Upton (back) had two hits and a walk for Double-A Montgomery. He should be back with the Rays on Friday. … There's plenty of star power on the Wednesday slate, but if you feel like a streamer, I'll endorse Mark Buehrle (47 percent, home against Chicago), Jake Peavy (42 percent, home against Baltimore) and forever-underrated R.A. Dickey (28 percent, at Atlanta). I don't see anything particularly fun with the very-low ownership levels; wait for better spots.