Managers routinely have a plan when they demote their struggling closer from the ninth inning. No one ever wants to look at the change as a permanent thing. Let a few weeks go by, allow the struggling stopper to fix things (or heal up), get back to the pre-season blueprint.
Makes sense on paper, looks nice on a cocktail napkin. But momentum is a valuable part of the saves chase, and it's not unusual to see the Plan B in a bullpen take a job and run with it. If the new closer is untouchable in the pressure role, what incentive is there for the club to shake things up later?
There are plenty of arms you can trust in the Seattle bullpen — only none of them are named Brandon League. Fortunately for Eric Wedge, the post-League options were sharp enough to carry the Mariners to a tight victory over the A's on Tuesday.
League entered with no wiggle room in the top of the seventh — Jason Vargas departed with the tying run on second — and his outing won't do any damage to his ERA. But when you allow singles to two of the three men you face and the game is tied on your watch, we're not going to give you a pat on the back.
League carries a 3.66 ERA and 1.59 WHIP for the year, and his K/BB ratio (21 punchouts, 15 free passes) doesn't inspire any confidence. The league is hitting .290 against him. (Coughlin's Law: bury the dead, they stink up the place.)
Shutdown set-up man Charlie Furbush worked a scoreless eighth, striking out the side and working around two walks (one intentional). The lefty has been untouchable over the last two months: 26.1 IP, 9 H, 2 R, 5 BB, 34 K. He's posted a bagel in his last 15 appearances, he's struck out at least one man in 17 straight outings, and he's been dominant against lefties and righties alike. Wedge likes to use Furbush in high-leverage situations, which is where the four victories come from.
Wilhelmsen's current domain is the ninth inning, and he's been dominant in that role. He only needed 12 pitches (eight strikes) to put the Athletics down 1-2-3, his sixth straight conversion. He hasn't allowed a run since the Human League demotion went down on Memorial day, covering 12 appearances (14.2 IP, 6 H, 2 BB, 18 K). Why would anyone want to remove The Bartender from the ninth? He's got this Closing Time thing down pat.
Obviously we have to consider the state of the Mariners as we handicap their plans. Seattle isn't going anywhere at 32-44, and League would be a nice guy to trade before the deadline hits. But given that no contending club is likely to view League as a closer, should it really matter if League has a bunch of cosmetic saves next to his name? Don't general managers deserve more credit that that? Bottom line, if you give me one stab at Pacific Northwest handshakes, I'm taking Wilhelmsen, without hesitation.
Happy days are here again (USP)The stakes are completely different in Washington, where the Nationals have the NL's best record and a club that's built for post-season success. The rotation is terrific in any measure, and could be dominant in the post-season if everyone is still available. Watch out for this team.
It took Davey Johnson a while to settle on Clippard as the ninth-inning guy; when Drew Storen was injured, the Nats initially tried their closing luck with Henry Rodriguez and Brad Lidge. H-Rod uncorked his way out of the ninth, one wild pitch at a time, and the erratic Lidge is no longer with the team. Sean Burnett has been effective in the late innings, but a lefty is seldom the preferred option in the ninth.
Eventually Clippard, the eighth-inning maestro, got a chance at the big chair — and he's been magnificent. Clippard is a perfect 12-for-12 on save chances since getting the role, allowing just one hit over that span. Check out the full line: 13.1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 5 BB, 16 K. If it ain't broke, why fix it?
Davey Johnson admitted over the weekend that Storen will not return to the closing gig — not immediately, anyway. Clippard has been too dominant. "Right now [Clippard is] my closer, and the way he's going I can't see going to somebody else," Johnson told the Washington Post. "They'd have to show me up here probably in a setup role before they have the opportunity to close."
To be fair, it's a vague quote, and a manager always has the right to change his mind. But the way I see it, the right dominoes would have to fall before Storen settled back into the ninth. If Clippard is mowing down opponents in the pressure role, how can Johnson pull out the rug from his clubhouse and fan base? This isn't experimentation time with a losing ballclub; this is a team that might just be the NL favorite right now. And remember that Storen isn't merely coming back from a routine injury, he's returning from elbow surgery. Why should we put any lofty assumptions on him?
Weird and wacky things happen in the late innings, every day. Maybe the narratives in Seattle and Washington will be radically different in a week or a month — heck, everything could change in 24 hours. But when something is working in the ninth, I never assume a manager will be anxious to change things. When someone knows how to land the plane smoothly, keep him in the pilot's seat.
Pothole on Hudson Steet (USP)• It was another messy night for Daniel Hudson — he allowed seven hits and five runs over 1.2 innings at Atlanta, then headed for the showers. Hudson was in obvious discomfort in this turn, and he admitted after the game that his elbow has been bothering him for a while. A DL stint looks unavoidable, and perhaps there's even more sinister news to come. (Coughlin's Law: anything else is always something better.)
There's a teaching point with Hudson's 2012 results. Whenever a respected or name pitcher has a couple of poor starts, we can't automatically assume that all is fine and past class will show through. Anyone who whistled through the graveyard on Roy Halladay or Tim Lincecum this year wound up getting burned. And it's not like any player has a reason to tell the public the truth about his physical problems. Where's the upside in that?
• Boston's fine play of late continued Tuesday, with Jarrod Saltalamacchia joining the fun (14th homer). The Salty story looks good in the overall stats — he's the No. 6 catcher in the Yahoo! game — but when you look at the splits, you find a player that's begging to be roto-platooned.
Although Saltalamacchia is a switch-hitter, he's only logged 30 at-bats against lefties this year (.200 average, one homer). And while Salty's power has shown up in all settings, his slash line at home (.281/.320/.561) is significantly better than what he does on the road (.215/.276/.506). The short-term schedule gets tricky starting this weekend, as the Red Sox play 9-of-12 on the road, visiting three cities that blunt offense: Seattle, Oakland and Tampa Bay. Salty hasn't reached set-it-and-forget-it status yet.
• Although the Cubs say they don't want to put savior status on Anthony Rizzo, the ballyhooed prospect nonetheless was in the No. 3 slot for his Chicago debut. Rizzo came through with a single and double in four trips, driving in the winning run. If I were doing a corner Shuffle Up right now, I'd have him somewhere in the $10-12 range — though to be fair, the range of outcomes are all over the map. I would not be surprised if he turned into a reliable $15-18 type of bat in the second half. This is not the same player San Diego recalled last summer; according to several scouts, he's grown up, made adjustments, polished his game.
Speed Round: CC Sabathia landed on the DL with a Grade 1 groin strain, though the Yankees are hoping it's only going to cost him two starts. Freddy Garcia jumps into the rotation, to the delight of AL hitters. … Desmond Jennings is going to remain at the bottom of the Tampa lineup while he works out of his funk. … Ryan Braun took a pitch off the elbow Tuesday and he's not in Wednesday's lineup. … Stephen Drew (ankle) is expected to come off the DL on Wednesday, though it's not clear if the Snakes will push him into a full-time position right away. I could see him being a $10-12 middle infielder this year, speaking in Shuffle Up terms, but I'd be shocked if he produced like a star (or someone worth owning in very shallow mixers). … Ryan Vogelsong beat Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers again on Tuesday, pitching to contact over seven scoreless innings. The underrated righty has two wins over Kershaw this year, and he's toppled LA four times since rejoining the Giants last season. … Adam Lind rejoined the Toronto lineup and had a couple of hits, but it will take a lot more than that before he's on my mixed-league roster. … Kyle Farnsworth is hitting 96 mph on the gun during rehab work, but keeping with today's theme, I can't see any reason why the Rays would mess with the dazzling Fernando Rodney in the ninth. Farnsworth seems ticketed for a set-up role when he's ready to come back. … Josh Beckett (shoulder) should be able to pitch Saturday against the Mariners, though I like to see one start before I activate any pitcher off the DL.
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