Most baseball players yearn to be in pennant races, which is why pitchers we thought were done for the season somehow have made stunning recoveries and returned. The Florida Marlins and Los Angeles Dodgers have pitchers who are good examples of this. Kevin Gregg and Takashi Saito aren't as done as we thought, eh? Troy Percival probably could use some more time off, but he's still pitching. And Billy Wagner went to the wall -- past the wall, really -- and might have thrown his final pitch.
Players' coming back too soon isn't always a good thing for fantasy owners, of course. Some aren't really healthy enough to play, and they can hurt you. Others have lost opportunity. Saves are critical to our game, and everyone needs to know who will get them. However, I think a few of these situations tend to get a bit overrated. For weeks, I'd been singing the praises of Luis Ayala, once it was clear he was the closer for the New York Mets, and I received so much feedback about potential return dates for Billy Wagner. Well, we saw how that ended up. Wagner couldn't pitch, though many a fantasy owner was duped anyway. Now Ayala owners feel safe. They should have before!
The Dodgers' Jonathan Broxton has nothing to worry about. Saito left a game nearly two months ago with elbow pain, and the initial diagnosis was an elbow ligament strain. But Tommy John surgery also was discussed. If the Dodgers were, say, 10 games out of first place, Saito wouldn't be throwing again this season. He might have already had the surgery. But the first-place Dodgers are very relevant, and Saito wants to return. Plus, he's even older than Wagner. Major surgery probably would end his career.
Saito can help the Dodgers these final three weeks, but it's very unlikely he'll supplant Broxton as the team's closer. In fact, it would be a shocking development. Only three pitchers have more saves than Broxton since the All-Star break, and of the 28 pitchers who have four or more saves in that span, only one has more strikeouts than he does. I could give you 20 guesses, and you probably wouldn't pick who it is (Fernando Rodney with 38). Anyway, Broxton has 35 strikeouts in 22 postbreak innings. The job is his for now and for 2009. Saito just wants to help the team.
The Marlins appear to be out of the pennant race, which is why Gregg's return from a sore knee seems more surprising. The bullpen is a mess, though. The Marlins claim that Gregg and lefty Renyel Pinto, who came off the disabled list Monday after dealing with a sore hamstring, will not pitch in high-leverage situations. On Tuesday, we saw Gregg hurl a perfect seventh inning, and Pinto was warming in the ninth, though I doubt he would have entered the game. It's great to say that these guys won't matter, but Matt Lindstrom recorded only one save while Gregg was out. Joe Nelson had one, too, but he suffered neck strain in the seventh inning Monday when Jayson Werth cranked his first pitch for a three-run homer. Nelson threw the eighth inning Tuesday. I could see Gregg getting back into the picture and picking up a stray save, but he might hurt your team in ERA and WHIP if he is, as we suspect, pitching while he's hurt.
Basically, just like we preached with Wagner, don't look at the season totals in the Marlins' and Dodgers' situations, because all that matters is the now. Gregg and Saito probably are not close to 100 percent healthy, and although their teams are in different places of contention and have different bullpen strengths, I doubt either right-hander will be picking up saves.
Percival also is one of my recent whipping boys, er, closers. Kudos to Tampa Bay's Joe Maddon for his handling of what was a brutal, league-worst bullpen in 2007, but Percival is not his most effective reliever. He's fourth, maybe. This reeks of the Tigers' sticking with Todd Jones when he was hurt/struggling, but then again, Jones piled on the saves. Percival has been off the DL for a week, and he's pitched three times. He's been lit twice. First, he allowed an Alex Rodriguez home run. It was a meaningless one because the Tampa Bay lead was so great at the time, but still, Percival didn't finish the inning. Then, a few days later, noted power hitter Gregg Zaun, slugging .361 this season, bombed a game-winning three-run homer off Percival in extra innings. On Tuesday, Percival allowed a Mark Kotsay walk and a Jacoby Ellsbury stolen base but held the one-run lead. I think Maddon owes it to his team to go to Dan Wheeler or Grant Balfour for saves, but as long as Percy is the man, you can't move on yet. That written, check my rankings: Percival is not ranked well.
As for Wagner, fantasy owners should appreciate what he delivered for the past 13 seasons. His career ERA is 2.40, and his WHIP is right at 1. He struck out 248 more batters than innings he pitched, and only five pitchers in history have more saves than he does. Basically, we always knew what we were getting with Wagner, as did the Astros, Phillies and Mets. In a saves world in which we've discussed at least five Tigers, Mets, Orioles, Indians, Athletics and Diamondbacks this season, having a sure thing sure was nice.
And now, back to the normal categories you've come to expect from Relief Efforts each week.
Jamie Walker, Orioles: Well, someone has to close for this horrible team, right? Remember when the Orioles were right there in the standings with the Yankees, hovering around .500? It seems like months ago, now that the Birds can't seem to win a game. Baltimore was 60-63 at one point, but 16 losses in 19 games have ruined the positive vibes. George Sherrill went on the DL more than a month ago, and nobody has earned a save since! That's right, Jim Johnson probably would have been the team's closer if a save chance had come up, but who really knows? Johnson is done for the season as an MRI showed a shoulder impingement. I keep touting wild, hard-thrower Dennis Sarfate, but the fact that he's been throwing longer, middle relief doesn't give hope that he'll close. So I guess they have to rely on Walker! The lefty hasn't had a good season, but he has the most experience out there. If the Orioles can win two or three in these final weeks, I'd think he'll earn a shot at those save chances.
Chris Carpenter, Cardinals: Tony LaRussa has tried just about everything in the closer role this season, and he claims he will look to the former Cy Young winner to work in that slot. Carpenter has had a lost season, and the news earlier this week that he will get save chances makes for stirring headlines and water cooler talk, but how many saves are we really talking about? One a week? Carpenter can't pitch very much, and the Cardinals are hoping he can close once a series. That doesn't sound like reason to sign Carpenter in a fantasy league, but his name and the situation likely will overrate him. It also doesn't sound like ample reason to cut loose Chris Perez, who has a win and a save in the past three days. By the way, if you're thinking about this in keeper leagues, Carpenter absolutely will start Opening Day 2009 for the Cards. Perez probably will close.
Jesse Carlson, Blue Jays: No, there's nothing wrong with B.J. Ryan, but he can't pitch every day, and the Blue Jays haven't lost in nearly two weeks. Really, it's almost a shame the Jays lingered around .500 for so long; maybe they could have pushed the Rays and Red Sox for the division title. Anyway, this is a very interesting Toronto bullpen, in which 35 of the team's 40 saves have come from three different lefty hurlers. Ryan leads the way, and Scott Downs has had a terrific campaign with a 1.17 ERA and five early-season saves, but it was a bit surprising to see yet another southpaw, Carlson, close out a David Purcey 1-0 shutout win last week. Like Downs, Carlson is hardly a one-out lefty stopper like Arthur Rhodes; he gets lefties and right-handers out. Should something befall Ryan, it hardly means Carlson is next in line -- Downs is getting all the holds for this team. But it's interesting nevertheless.
Julian Tavarez, Braves: With his third team of the season, the well-traveled Tavarez has been an effective reliever with Atlanta and has accrued an impressive four holds and a win in his past six appearances. Tavarez also has fanned 26 hitters in 26 2/3 innings with his latest team, and he and Jeff Bennett have pretty much been the top set-up men for Mike Gonzalez. The Braves still aren't a very good team, and the schedule is tough down the stretch, but if you need holds, only one pitcher (Toronto's Downs) has had more holds in the past week. Should Gonzalez go down, it might be time to remind people that Tavarez has 22 career saves. By the way, the season leader for holds remains Kyle McClellan of the Cardinals, not that anyone has noticed. Can you name last season's holds leader? Hint, he's been a closer all this season (Brandon Lyon).
Time for a K-Rod update! This could be the week he breaks the saves record, and I know everyone will be on the edge of his seat each time he pitches. Francisco Rodriguez sits at 55 saves. I wonder if Bobby Thigpen is like the 1972 Dolphins and has a bottle of champagne ready if the record remains his. In actual fantasy news, the Angels will clinch the AL West any day, and there remains discussion that K-Rod could be rested a bit down the stretch. Scot Shields likely would get the save chances. Now that Mike Gonzalez is off the board, the only current closers who haven't blown a save this season are Philly's Brad Lidge and the Athletics' Brad Ziegler. Of course, only one of those guys has been closing all season. Francisco Cordero is on a nice run, having not allowed a run in 10 appearances since Aug. 17. He does have five walks and five strikeouts in that span, though. The White Sox are in a hot pennant race, so Bobby Jenks was needed to get five outs for a save recently. Then this past weekend he pitched two innings against the Angels in what became a 15-inning affair. Jenks seems to pitch only in games the White Sox win. Since May 1, the team has lost only twice in the 43 games he's thrown. Jonathan Papelbon lost Tuesday's game when he allowed a Dan Johnson solo home run and the winning run after that. It was his third straight day of pitching, but he might not pitch again on three straight days until the postseason.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His new book, "Top 100 Philadelphia Sports Arguments," will be released in October. You can e-mail him here.