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Closing Time: Phil Hughes, bully in the Bronx

I was on the clock for the last no-hitter in the majors, so tonight's Closing Time won't have anything more than a nod to Mark Buehrle(notes) (and DeWayne Wise(notes) for that matter). But fret not if you want more angles from the Pale Hose Perfection; I'm happy to point you to the wall-to-wall coverage my Yahoo! colleagues cranked out Thursday. Andy Behrens wants to hear how the no-hitter affected your fantasy bottom line. Jeff Passan knows Buehrle well and offers a great profile. Gordon Edes has an engaging story about leather. Kevin Kaduk clips 10 Buehrle memories to put in your scrapbook.

My role tonight is to focus on the other eight games, and that's what I'm offering to you below. Enough with the preamble, it's time to gather up the jackets and close another night on the sandlots. We'll begin with a Bronx tale, a stud pitching prospect that's prospering in a new role.

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Everyone expects Phil Hughes(notes) to be one of the top Yankee starting pitchers in the next decade, but at some point the question needs to be raised – what if he's significantly more dominant as a reliever?

The lights-out version of Hughes continued to play out of the bullpen Thursday night against Oakland; with Mariano Rivera(notes) set for a night off, Hughes was entrusted to get the last six outs in a three-run game. No problem for the young righty – he set down every batter he faced over 28 tidy pitches en route to his first save of the year. No intrigue, nothing to see here; the A's weren't squaring a thing against Hughes and the outcome was never in doubt.

When you call up Hughes's stats out of the bullpen, the numbers leap off the page: 24.1 IP, 12 H, 2 R, 5 BB, 28 K, good for a 0.74 ERA and 0.70 WHIP. Opponents are hitting .145 against him. Filthy stats, wiffle ball numbers. On the flip side, Hughes wasn't anything special in his seven starts earlier this season: 4.54 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, though he did have almost a strikeout per inning.

There are some undeniable truths to consider when we ponder these types of philosophical questions. Obviously a stud starter helps a club more than a star reliever; more innings add up to more influence. It's also far easier to post dominant stats in a relief role, as batters see you just once per game and there's no need to pace yourself or hold anything back. If and when Hughes goes back to the rotation, he's not going to bring his relief stats into play. The game doesn't work like that.

Still, Rivera isn't going to pitch forever, and it's not like we've never seen a high-profile team decide that a prized arm is better off in the bullpen (see Jonathan Papelbon(notes), a few hours down Route 95). And the way Hughes is pitching right now, it looks like he'll be a bullpen jockey for the rest of 2009, and with the stats that are coming along for the ride, fantasy owners should embrace the role. I won't be surprised if Hughes finds a way to win 4-6 more games, along with a few rogue saves, over the final two months of 2009. And those dominant innings always have a home in competitive mixed leagues, especially if you're dealing with the devil of innings-pitched maximums.

The stomach punches keep coming for the Twins, who continue to invent goofy ways to blow ballgames. Thursday's strange loss started to unravel in the ninth when a struggling Joe Nathan(notes) couldn't find the plate, walking one batter and hitting another. Nathan still deserved a better fate and almost escaped, but Howie Kendrick's(notes) innocent infield grounder somehow eluded capture, ricocheting off Nathan's glove and the second-base bag. That fluky hit forced extra innings and the Angels had all the answers in the tenth; the surging Brian Fuentes(notes) cruised through an easy inning and Mike Napoli stroked a game-winning double in the bottom of the frame.

It's hard to get a handle on Scott Baker's(notes) worth right now. He ran up 104 pitches over five pedestrian innings (5 IP, 7 H, 2 R, 3 BB, 6 K), though he at least kept the ball in the park and would have had a victory had Nathan not struggled in the ninth.

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A midgame rain delay didn't hold Adam Wainwright(notes) back at Washington; his three pitches were in fine form (especially his 12-to-6 curve) and the Nats took plenty of awkward swings. Wainwright worked six strong innings (8 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 7 K, tasty video here) for his 11th win, and the one run was a little bit fluky (Ryan Ludwick(notes) took a poor route on Alberto Gonzalez's(notes) RBI double). Mercifully, the rains came back and we didn't have to watch the Nationals try to hit over the last three innings.

Wainwright's 2.95 ERA and 130 strikeouts obviously pay a lot of bills, but the sneaky boost to his profile comes with the 143.1 innings. He's worked six innings or more in his last 19 starts, just about guaranteeing a useful outing every time out. In short, here's a fantasy star that's not fully respected by the gaming public at large.

The ball wasn't carrying very well in the heavy Detroit air Thursday afternoon and Jarrod Washburn(notes) was happy to take advantage, recording 14 fly-ball outs over seven rocking chair innings (2 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 3 K, 93 pitches). The reinvented lefty will bring his 2.71 ERA and 1.06 WHIP to the mound against Toronto and at Texas next week, and I've reached the point that I'll start him anywhere, even in Arlington.

Injury Blog: Jose Guillen(notes) has a Grade 2 LCL tear and will miss 6-8 weeks. Mark Teahen(notes) will probably settle in as KC's regular right fielder for the time being. … Lance Berkman(notes) (calf) finally went on the 15-day DL but the club is hopeful that he won't be out a significant amount of time. "It's for the best," Berkman conceded. "It's better to be out a couple of weeks than a couple of months." … The Cubs are expecting to get Ryan Dempster(notes) (toe) back soon but the Chicago Tribune says it won't be this week. … Aaron Rowand(notes) (forearm) is aiming for a Friday return at Colorado, and the same goes for Edgar Renteria(notes) (elbow). … Joe Crede(notes) (shoulder) had a busy day Thursday: one X-ray, one MRI and one injection. For now, he won't be placed on the disabled list. … Jack Wilson(notes) (hamstring) is a few days away from starting, though he's able to pinch hit right now. … With Chad Durbin(notes) (back) and J.C. Romero(notes) (forearm) headed to the disabled list, Chan Ho Park(notes) becomes more important in the scheme of the Philadelphia bullpen. Park got the last five men out in Thursday's win, and he was outstanding in Tuesday's extra-inning victory (three perfect innings, five Ks).

Speed Round: Alex Rodriguez(notes) must be feeling pretty healthy these days, as he's stolen bases in each of his last three games. I suppose Kate Hudson could put a bounce in anyone's step, as Russell Hammond would attest. … Kendrick didn't start Thursday, for what it's worth, but the adopted son of Andy Behrens still had two hits off the bench to spark the Anaheim comeback. He's hiked the average up to .253. … Garrett Jones(notes) continues to justify the love, collecting three hits against Dan Haren(notes). … Don't start anything but your star pitchers against the Phillies these days, they're wrecking just about everyone right now. Kevin Correia(notes) got the memo Thursday (3.1 IP, 9 H, 8 R, 3 BB, 2 K). … Alex Rios(notes) has focused on his running game since Cito Gaston dropped him in the order. Rios swiped three bags Thursday, making him 11-for-12 on the bases in just 21 games batting sixth. Hey, whatever works.

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