Closing Time: Expect an August rush on Joe Blanton

Here’s something to know about Joe Blanton(notes). He hasn’t produced an August yet in his career that hasn’t been worth owning, at least in leagues of 12-plus teams. Ninety-nine percent of the time, you can write off split discrepancies as the randomness that comes with the game. But, when a particular month has produced an ERA nearly two runs lower than any other month save one, over five-plus seasons, it’s cause for a little longer reflection. Of course, I note Blanton’s August split (10-4, 2.75 ERA, 110 K, 150.1 IP) as preamble to mentioning the gem he tossed today – a win over the Cardinals in which he allowed just two runs, seven hits and a walk, while fanning six, in eight innings.

For Blanton, owned in fewer than 65 percent of Yahoo! Plus leagues, it was his fourth consecutive quality start in July, leaving him with a 3-0 record and a 1.21 ERA for the month. Besides his recent run of success and historical spike in the month ahead, there’s more reason for optimism in regards to Blanton. There’s the offensive support of the top scoring offense in the NL – his 7.07 runs of support rank 29th among pitchers with 100-plus innings pitched. Then there’s the career-high in K/9 (7.83) and the second-lowest BB/9 of his career (2.69). Of course, there’s plenty of Bluto to Blanton’s physique, and he tends to wear down by the time September rolls around (4.73 ERA), so any Blanton fantasy acquisition should come with the disclaimer that he could very likely wither in the final month. But, he’s a high-volume innings eater with strong wood backing him up, so the wins could stay healthy even when the ratios start to slip. Add him now, and decide later when the right time to cut bait is.

I’ve been traversing the greater Pacific Northwest region for the past couple weeks as part of a family vacation (with some work mixed in). Unfortunately, I’ve been a little less diligent with my roster management during this time. I got back home yesterday, and the first roster move I made after unpacking the car was to move Ben Francisco(notes) into my lineup over Ryan Church(notes), something I might have done a few days ago had I been paying better attention. Luckily, there was still some wave to catch from Francisco’s recent mini-surge, as he hit his third home run in his past seven games on Sunday in Cleveland’s 12-3 rout of the Mariners. In that span, Francisco has gone 9-for-21 (.429) with seven RBI and seven runs in seven games. He has legit 20/20 talent, but he’s been maddeningly inconsistent this season. However, the July K-to-BB ratio of 9/11 is not only the first month this season in which he’s walked more than he’s whiffed, but it’s also the first month in which he didn’t strikeout at least twice as often as he drew a walk.

The Indians scored 31 runs in their three-game sweep of the Mariners, and that probably tipped the balance for Seattle to the sell side of the trade market, especially now that Erik Bedard(notes) has landed on the DL yet again – more rest and medication is being prescribed for the aluminum man’s inflamed shoulder. Now 7.5 games back of the Angels in the AL West, don’t be surprised if the Mariners start seriously entertaining offers for Jarrod Washburn(notes), Russell Branyan(notes) and anyone else not considered integral future parts.

For the sixth time in six outings this season, John Smoltz(notes) left a game with just one walk (or less) issued. In the process, he suffered his fourth loss of the season in allowing six runs in five innings to the Orioles. Perhaps his location is too good. The Orioles collected nine hits off the veteran, including four doubles and a home run by Nick Markakis(notes) (who also doubled and picked up three RBI). In his past two outings, he’s allowed 18 hits, 11 of them going for extra bases (four home runs and seven doubles). As for Smoltz’s short-term future prospects, Terry Francona was quoted after today’s game, saying, “This is going to work. As his results get better, I’m sure he’ll feel better. He’s frustrated. He’s been getting beat by fastballs that weren’t locating.”

Smoltz’s fastball has been running in the low 90s this season, slower than the 93-95 mph range he’s worked in regularly in previous seasons, but still enough speed for a veteran that has picked up plenty of tricks to supplement his arsenal with through the years. The issue lies in leaving that fastball too much over the plate. Most of the O’s damage was done against that fastball and the best example that Smoltz is still in search of his paint (the corner) brush came after he served up a double to Markakis in the third inning on a letter-high fastball. In Markakis’ very next at bat, Smoltz offered up the same exact pitch, and this time Markakis deposited it in the outfield bleachers. If Smoltz was on top of his game, he’d never had made a mistake like that twice. If the O’s were hitting pitches in good locations, I’d worry about Smoltz a lot more. But, as it stands, I think improved command can still take him a long ways.

Opposing Smoltz was Baltimore rookie David Hernandez(notes), who recorded his fourth consecutive quality start in beating the Red Sox with seven innings of one-run ball. He’s now beat allowed just two runs combined against the Red Sox and Yankees in back-to-back starts and each of his past four quality starts have come on the road. Before getting called up to Baltimore in late May, Hernandez owned a 3.30 ERA and a stellar 79:18 K-to-BB ratio in 57.1 IP for Triple-A Norfolk. There was an interview clip with O’s pitching coach Rick Kranitz shown during today’s telecast in which he explained that Hernandez throws, what he describes, as an invisible fastball in that it doesn’t look that formidable but that it sneaks up on the hitter before they realize it. Watching him mow down the Red Sox, there seemed to be some validity to what Kranitz was saying. Hernandez seemed to be getting away with a lot of fastballs in the hitting zone. While he was regularly hitting 94 mph with that fastball, he still couldn’t get away with some of the pitches he was throwing today unless there was some deception to the pitch. Baseball America backed up this claim of fastball deception in its Prospect Handbook 2009 and cites inconsistency with his slider as one of the things that holds him back. However, he showed upside in that department against the BoSox, consistently busting right-handed hitters with a nice, sharp breaking ball in on the hands. Command will be of utmost importance for him going forward as he’s been an extreme fly-ball pitcher for the Orioles (41 ground balls induced compared to 82 fly balls), and Camden Yards can be a tough place for fly-ball pitchers to make a living.

As good as Hernandez was, Toronto rookie Brett Cecil(notes) was a little better, stymieing the Rays with seven innings of four-hit, one-run ball. He walked three and struck out seven in picking up his second win in his past three outings. Owned in just 11 percent (and counting) of Yahoo! Plus leagues, Cecil’s home run allowed to Carl Crawford(notes) in the sixth inning is the only run he has yielded in his past 20 innings. He’s allowed just 15 hits and fanned 21 hitters in the process. The Jays’ No. 3 prospect entering the season, according to Baseball America, has been up and down this season, mixing occasional brilliance in with bouts of wildness (24 BB in 59 IP) and times when his stuff is too hittable – like when he allowed five home runs to Boston in an outing in late May. This is par for the course for a rookie pitcher and should cause owners pause when surfing the waiver wires for the hot-handed southpaw. Another reason to curb your enthusiasm is Toronto’s plan to go to a six-man rotation over the final two months of the season in an effort to limit Cecil’s innings, among others.

Among regular closers, Mariano Rivera(notes), Kevin Gregg(notes), Huston Street(notes) picked up saves on Sunday without much incident. The only blown save of the day belonged to Washington’s Mike MacDougal(notes), who surrendered a two-out, game-tying solo shot to San Diego rookie Kyle Blanks(notes) in the bottom of the ninth. It was the touted young slugger’s third home run in his past six games, but despite recent comments that he’s starting to feel much more comfortable at the plate, he’s still got a little ways to go before he should enter our mixed-league consciousness.

For MacDougal, it was just his second home run allowed in 22 IP this season, his first blown save in save chances and it cost starter John Lannan(notes) (8 IP, 1 ER) his sixth win in his past 10 starts, nine of which have been quality starts.

Matt Kemp(notes) batted fifth and went 2-for-5 with a stolen base for the Dodgers in their 8-6 loss to Florida. There’s been a fairly loud outcry from the fantasy baseball community for him to move up in the batting order. And it’s justifiable. That said, Kemp hasn’t exactly taken advantage of his limited opportunities in elevated spots in the lineup this season. Coming into Sunday, he was hitting .200 combined when batting anywhere in the top six spots in the lineup, but was hitting .374 from the No. 7, 8 and 9 spots combined.

It’s been tough times of late for Pittsburgh’s Freddy Sanchez(notes) and you have to wonder if contract/trade talks are starting to affect his play. In addition to sitting Friday night against Arizona because of a sore left knee, he also went 0-for-12 in the series against the Diamondbacks, including seven strikeouts. In his past eight games, Sanchez is 3-for-34 (.088) with 12 strikeouts and nary an RBI. For someone with a career-high 76 strikeouts, you have to figure some unusual influence is going on here.

Speaking of tough times, Angels starter Ervin Santana(notes) allowed six runs to the Twins in just 3.2 IP. It was the seventh time in his last nine outings that he has given up four runs or more. But today, Santana was more unlucky than bad. In the first inning, he gave up an opposite-field single to Joe Mauer(notes) on an impossible low, outside pitch that probably only Mauer and a handful of others in the league could have handled successfully. Then Justin Morneau(notes) came up and Santana was, well … bad, hanging a breaking ball out over the plate where Morneau was able to crush it beyond the right-centerfield wall. But, in the fourth inning, where he allowed four runs to earn his exit from the game, he was the victim of home plate umpire Angel Hernandez, who had no interest in making hitters Justin Morneau and, later, Nick Punto(notes) protect the outside corner of the plate with two strikes on them. Santana delivered pitches to each player in the inning with two strikes on them that were very questionably called balls. If Hernandez had rung up either one of them, Santana escapes the inning unscathed. Catcher Mike Napoli(notes) also dropped a two-strike foul tip off Punto’s bat which, again, would have ended Santana’s inning on a positive note.

Afterwards, Santana said, “I made good pitches, and they still just hit the ball, like a blooper or a ground ball. I think I pitched better than (the statistics). … I don’t know about the gun, but I feel like (the ball) is coming out of my hand better.” I’d concur with his assessment. He was hitting 94 mph with his fastball early on. And his slider showed sharp bite. I tend to agree with colleague Brad Evans’ recommendation that now is a good time to pitch a low-ball offer on Santana. I expect that better days are coming soon.

Notes: Atlanta starter Tim Hudson(notes) will make his third rehab start Monday at Triple-A Gwinnett … Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner(notes) landed on the 15-day DL with a broken thumb … Matt Holliday(notes) is hitting .636 (7-for-11) in his first three games (following Albert Pujols(notes)) for the Cards … Giants outfielder Aaron Rowand(notes) will have an MRI on his sore elbow on Monday ... Seattle outfielder Michael Saunders(notes) was ranked as one of Baseball America’s top 25 prospects in its recent mid-season update. He picked up his first two major league hits against Cleveland in his second career game … Oh, and, yes, Max Scherzer(notes) and Rich Harden(notes) were awesome today ...

Alright, what say you?

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