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Closing Time: The reinvention of Michael Bourn

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The payoff came a year late with Michael Bourn(notes), but you have to admit it's been worth the wait.

Bourn landed in Houston last spring with a new-found starting job and a lot of fantasy buzz; remember he stole 18-of-19 bases in a limited 2006 role in Philadelphia. There was nothing special about Bourn's bat but given the speed at play we didn't much care. Just put the ball in play as much as possible and let those legs scoop up an easy 60 bases.

Alas, you still can't steal first base in this game. Bourn's loopy swing and poor plate discipline led to a nightmare time at the plate last season (.229/.288/.300) and even though he swiped 41 bags he didn't really help fantasy owners at the end of the day (57 runs is embarrassing for a regular leadoff man, not to mention 29 RBIs). The wisdom of crowds took a hands-off approach to Bourn at the beginning of 2009; he wasn't drafted in a lot of mixed leagues back in March.

Here's what most of us didn't realize or want to accept at the time – Bourn was in the process of changing his identity. The Astros shortened his swing and got him to focus on putting the ball in play, skills he'd need to carry into the season if he wanted to be a regular. A lot of these spring-training "improvement" stories are nothing more than blow-off puff pieces, but Bourn's approach actually translated into the regular season. His three-hit game Wednesday raised his average to .291, and he's been able to trim his strikeouts and bump up his walk rate. A keener eye, shorter swings, more contact, that's all we needed to see. He'll never make anyone forget Rickey Henderson, but that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with rostering Bourn as a category specialist.

And there's never been a question about the wheels and the willingness to run, of course. Bourn also swiped two bags on Wednesday, giving him 46 on the year, and he's got much better counting stats as well. The lesson in all this? Sometimes it's best to quickly forget everything we learned in the previous season, and sometimes those flimsy spring-training stories actually do have a useful nugget hidden in them. As the late, great Eddie Felson might say, speed found off the waiver wire is twice as sweet as speed drafted.

So much for the silly notion that the move to Philadelphia would hurt Cliff Lee(notes) – I realize it's been just four starts but he's been mowing down everything in his path. The Diamondbacks didn't have a chance Wednesday, managing just two hits and one unearned run against Philly's new ace. Lee struck out 11, didn't walk anyone, and hit the strike zone on a whopping 81 of 106 pitches. I had the office TV set to this game for most of the night and it seemed like Lee had a 0-2 count on everyone he faced. The beat figures to go on next Monday at Citi Field.

Zack Greinke(notes) didn't have his best stuff in the matinee at Chicago – four runs, three solo homers – but his 11-8 record on the season is a cruel joke. The Royals have rewarded their ace with the worst run support in the American League and that story kept playing Wednesday; the Royal Blues managed just three hits and one run in seven innings against the previously-scuffling Jose Contreras(notes). Our peeps at Charging the Mound aren't considering Greinke a Top 36 player on the board for 2010, but I don't think I can let Greinke fall past the Top 3 rounds, no matter how scrubby his supporting cast tends to be. What sayeth you?

You watch Yovani Gallardo(notes) for the right stretch and you wonder how this guy ever gets beat, but he seems to lose his concentration here and there and that might be why he fell at Pittsburgh on Wednesday. The Pirates only had five hits but they made the most of them; CT favorite Delwyn Young(notes) posted a useful 4-0-2-1 line, Andrew McCutchen(notes) and Garrett Jones(notes) stole bases, and Ronny Cedeno(notes) whacked a two-run homer in the second. Paul Maholm(notes) was in constant trouble on the other side but lived to tell about it, getting bailed out by four double-play balls. Matt Capps(notes) had his best stuff for once at the end, putting Milwaukee down in order.

The Cardinals made a smart move picking up John Smoltz(notes) on the cheap, though he makes far more sense as a one-inning reliever than he does as a potential No. 5 starter. Just about all of his eight starts with Boston followed the same pattern – one strong pass through the order followed by problems – and left-handed batters absolutely teed off on him consistently. Working with pitching guru Dave Duncan can only help, but I trust Smoltz more as an eighth-inning bridge to Ryan Franklin(notes) than I do as someone who tries to work 5-7 innings each appearance. And in a mixed league, I'm not bothering with a pickup.

The Indians finally returned Matt LaPorta(notes) to Cleveland, let's see if he'll actually get to play this time. LaPorta had nothing more to prove at Triple-A (.294/.385/.514) and it's not like there aren't replaceable parts currently marking time in the Tribe lineup. Your move, Eric Wedge.

Injury Blog: Jake Peavy(notes) (ankle) will probably make two more starts in the minors before the White Sox look to get him to the majors. … Carlos Beltran(notes) (knee) did some hitting and running Wednesday but there's no specific word on when he might play again. Given where the Mets are in the standings right now, why bother? … Scott Rolen(notes) (post-concussion) is ready to start a rehab assignment. … Willy Taveras(notes) (hamstring) took his one category of worth and hit the DL Wednesday. … Justin Morneau(notes) (dizziness) took another day off, a prudent call in the Arlington heat. … Joey Votto(notes) just can't catch a break this year, now he's dealing with blurry vision. … Jim Thome(notes) (heel) is looking at a Friday return. … Mat Latos(notes) was rocked for the second straight game, which makes you wonder what's up with his sore wrist. A shutdown could be coming soon from the Padres, who have no reason to take chances with their franchise prospect. … If Oliver Perez(notes) (knee) can throw without incident Thursday, he'll make his start on the weekend. He's had surprising NL-only utility for a few weeks now.

Speed Round: Clay Buchholz(notes) was able to pound the strike zone in Toronto and the results were favorable – six innings of one-run ball and a victory over Roy Halladay(notes). The rebounding Boston offense went for three homers (Victor Martinez(notes), David Ortiz(notes), Jason Bay(notes)) and a couple of steals to boot. … Gary Sheffield(notes) admits he doesn't see himself finishing the year with the Mets, whatever that may mean. It's been a heck of a year in Queens. … Ivan Rodriguez(notes) returned to Arlington with three hits and an RBI, but let's hope the Rangers don't seriously view him as someone who can play everyday at this stage of his career. Fantasy owners know the score here. … Another day, another Carlos Gonzalez(notes) homer. Just let him play, Jim Tracy. … Jonathan Broxton's(notes) loss Wednesday wasn't a bombastic one – St. Louis got him with a walk, an infield error and a sacrifice fly – but it's no less frustrating for Broxy's public. Broxton was working for the fourth time in five nights, which is par for the course when you work in a Joe Torre bullpen, I suppose. Stay fresh, George Sherrill(notes).

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