The original aim of the Closing Time blog was to focus on the ninth inning, the save grabbers, the committees and the closers going good and bad. Ultimately the collective ambitiousness of the staff morphed this column into something else - a discussion of the night in fantasy baseball - but for tonight's edition, I'm getting back to CT's roots: bullpen audits first, everything else can wait. It's a good night to adopt such a theme - we only saw two lopsided scores on this full slate.
• Kerry Wood mowed down the Pirates for his 27th save (1-2-3, two strikeouts), and it's safe to say his blister problem is history. He's only allowed one run in his 10 appearances since returning, with 13 strikeouts and one walk. The eighth inning is also in good hands, as Carlos Marmol's unhittable act has returned in August (14.2 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 5 BB, 18 K).
If Chicago can keep everyone healthy for the fall (looking at you, Rich Harden), here's your overwhelming NL favorite. They've got it all, dynamic starting pitching, the league's best offense (by far), and a stable of hard-throwing, lights-out relievers. Derrick Rose, Devin Hester and Jonathan Toews can wait; the Cubs should be back-page news deep into October.
• Frank Francisco already has plenty of leash as the new Texas closer - Ron Washington said on Monday that Francisco would hold the job the remainder of the year - but nonetheless it's encouraging that he came out of the blocks with a strong statement save Wednesday at Kansas City (1-2-3 ninth, two strikeouts, just nine pitches). Francisco had six blown saves entering the night but that's a junk stat - all of those "blown saves" came before the ninth, so it's a case of blowing a save you don't get a chance to record. Said another way, you should always be skeptical when it comes to the BS count on a non-closing reliever, because it's not indicative to how they might fare if asked to close up in the ninth inning.
• The Arizona bullpen has to be driving Bob Melvin crazy these days; Wednesday's Blowup-Du-Jour came from Chad Qualls in the eighth inning at San Diego (three hits, two runs, goodbye ballgame). The misstep cost Randy Johnson a win; the ageless Unit piled up nine more strikeouts over seven sharp innings (5 H, 3 R). Trevor Hoffman continued his sterling second half with a three-strikeout ninth, and CT favorite Jody Gerut chipped in three hits and a stolen base.
• Johan Santana was solid over six innings at Philadelphia (5 H, 3 R, 3 BB, 6 K, no decision), but for once the Mets got the job done after he left the ballgame. Brian Stokes escaped a bases-loaded jam in the seventh, Pedro Feliciano and Joe Smith combined for the eighth, then Luis Ayala, reborn in Flushing, worked a perfect ninth for his second New York save (if you're chasing the stat, you have my permission to add). Brad Lidge had a rare misstep on the other side (two runs, retired just one batter), though the Mets salted the game away on Rudy Seanez's watch. Jayson Werth hit his 18th homer in a losing cause and shouldn't be on any 12-team waiver wire any longer.
• Joel Hanrahan hasn't been overwhelming the last two nights, but he hasn't allowed any runs either, and that's allowed him to score a couple of saves (finally, some leads to protect). The Nats went the aggressive route Wednesday and asked for Hanrahan to get four outs against LA; tip of the cap to Manny Acta for that play. Jonathan Broxton got in an inning of work for the Dodgers and dominated, striking out the side (13 pitches, 11 strikes). It was a soft-serve special from the starting pitchers; Greg Maddux and Tim Redding went 53 batters deep without a strikeout.
• The Mariners offense hasn't bothered most AL pitchers this year, but Joe Nathan has struggled in the Emerald City this month, for some reason (two rare blown saves). He went back to the Safeco mound without his ideal command Wednesday but got through it anyway, retiring the M's 1-2-3 despite throwing just four of nine pitches for strikes. Eddie Guardado was rocky in his set-up stint (two outs, three hits, one run); he's now allowed six runs over his last seven appearances, reminding everyone of how hard it is to do surgery with stuff in the 80s. Gravity, of course, always wins.
• David Purcey has been useful in four of six starts since his recall, though I don't think anyone saw his Wednesday gem at Tampa Bay coming (5 H, 1 R, 0 BB, 11 K). Alas, it wasn't good enough, as Matt Garza, Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler combined on a snappy six-hit shutout. Enjoy it while you can, Wheeler owners; Troy Percival (knee) is on pace for a Saturday return.
• Josh Johnson became the latest pitcher to dominate the pedestrian Braves lineup (9 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 3 BB, 8 K), and the Marlins sure appreciated the complete game because Kevin Gregg was considered unavailable after Tuesday's meltdown. The Fish have won seven of Johnson's nine starts this year.
• Death, taxes and Roy Oswalt beats the Reds - he improved to 22-1 over Cincinnati with a 4-1 win Wednesday. It wasn't a dominant performance, but Oswalt got 16 outs on the ground and a couple of timely GIDPs from Edwin Encarnacion. Closer Jose Valverde, meanwhile, was dominant, striking out three of four and recording his 34th save. He's been super over the last five months.
• Huston Street continues to throw the ball well of late; he retired five straight Angels Wednesday, three on strikeouts, and scored his fourth win. But how can the Athletics take Brad Ziegler out of the closer role? Ziggy recorded the last five outs for his sixth save, with the final two coming via his best friend - the GIDP.
• The blueprint worked nicely for the Cardinals Wednesday, with Adam Wainwright working six solid innings (6 IP, 8 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 2 K), then handing it over to the bullpen (three scoreless). Ryan Franklin was less-than-perfect but escaped the eighth and got the win; Chris Perez dominated in the ninth (one hit, three strikeouts) and grabbed another leash-extending save. Manny Parra deserved a better fate on the other side (6 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 7 K); David Riske coughed up the lead in the eighth, done in by the meat of the St. Louis order (more proof of how it's silly not to bring in your best reliever for the game's most critical moment).
• Livan Hernandez was surprisingly effective at San Francisco Wednesday (6.1 IP, 2 R), but his teammates couldn't do much against the brilliant Tim Lincecum (7.2 IP, 1 R, 10 K). Brian Wilson got the last four outs for his 36th save; they're partying in Londonderry, N.H. tonight.
• Speed Round: A hit, two walks, and two steals for Jimmy Rollins, who's clearly got his groove back . . . The locked-in Carlos Delgado left the yard two more times, giving him 13 homers in the second half. He's also got 21 walks against 24 strikeouts over that span. Heck of a comeback, big guy . . . I'm trying to move Aubrey Huff in one competitive keeper league (I'm playing for today), but the way he's hitting, it's hard to find a package worth accepting. He threw three hits, a homer and a stolen base at the White Sox Wednesday . . . The Tigers are a train wreck but don't blame Curtis Granderson, who's been monstrous in the second half (38 runs in 39 games, six homers, .419 OBP, 29 walks against 29 strikeouts). It's a joy watching this guy play, in all facets . . . Although Michael Bourn is hitting just .174 over the last month, Cecil Cooper plans to give him the majority of center field work in September . . . If you've got fan mail for Craig Hansen, send it to Triple-A Indianapolis . . . Kelly Shoppach continues to mark his territory (3-for-5, homer, three RBIs) and you have to figure he'll continue to get a decent chunk of at-bats even when Victor Martinez returns . . . Dustin Pedroia had three hits (including a grand slam) in Boston's win at New York, so Peter King went to bed happy . . . The Red Sox grabbed Mark Kotsay from Atlanta, essentially to be the fourth outfielder.
• Is it finally midnight for Cinderella Joe Saunders? The sneaky lefty got knocked around for the second straight turn (1.1 IP, 8 H, 6 R), pushing his ERA up to 3.67. Saunders had one infield hit deflect off his pitching hand; let's keep an eye on that the next few days. If all is fine, he'll start at Detroit Tuesday.
• Injury Lap: An abscessed tooth kept Josh Hamilton out of Wednesday's game at KC . . . Howie Kendrick (hamstring) and Erick Aybar (hamstring) both left Wednesday's game, which led to Juan Rivera making a surprise appearance at second base (check your eligibility rules in AL-only leagues) . . . Travis Hafner's rehab has stalled this week: he hasn't played the last three games. I'll be surprised if Pronk does anything for us the rest of the year. The club is hoping he can DH Thursday. Things look better with Martinez, who hasn't had any setbacks hitting or throwing to this point . . . Garret Anderson (knee) and Vladimir Guerrero (legs) both returned to the mix Wednesday; Anderson had on hit, Vlad two . . . Vicente Padilla (neck) will miss his Friday turn; Dustin Nippert steps in.
• Normally we close up shop with a final look at the closers, but tonight that theme became the lead. With that audible in pay, we'll instead throw some stolen-base stories at you on the way out.
Hanley Ramirez makes us happy with his bat, but his days of running like a madman could be through. He's 29-for-41 on steals this year (after getting 102 the last two seasons), and the organization has asked him to pick his spots more cautiously. Have we seen the last of his gaudy steal totals? "It's getting close to being over," Ramirez told the team's official site. "Not completely over, but I won't have as many."
• The book on Rajai Davis is a short one - good wheels, no stick. But with 10 hits and five steals over the last week and a half, maybe it's time for a short-term rental to see where this goes. Davis had four hits and two swipes in Wednesday's win over the Angels.
• Nyjer Morgan started again Wednesday even with Nate McLouth in the lineup; Morgan went 1-for-4 with a couple of strikeouts. He's not guaranteed anything down the stretch, but if you need to get lucky with steals in a very deep league, I present this angle to you. Mull it over and we'll pick up where we left off Thursday night.