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BASEBALL PLAYOFFS / AMERICAN LEAGUE

He's Still Serving Up Comebackers

Red Sox: Older, wiser and more than once counted out, Saberhagen is relishing another chance to pitch in postseason.

October 02, 1998|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOSTON — Bret Saberhagen is so old, he's going to win the American League comeback award this season--for the second time.

Which means he's due to win it again sometime near 2010.

Saberhagen can remember back when the home run record was a piddling 61, when the Kansas City Royals were an elite team, and when there was a giggly, 21-year-old flamethrower who used to own this sport.

All the way back in 1985--13 years, three teams and multiple shoulder surgeries ago--Saberhagen led the Royals to a World Series victory, won a Cy Young Award, had a good friend and teammate in Dan Quisenberry, and generally thought this was the way the rest of his career would go.

It didn't, of course.

Saberhagen, the Boston Red Sox's Game 3 starter today at Fenway Park in the divisional series against Cleveland, has a new right shoulder now, Quisenberry has just died, and Saberhagen's voice is rich with elegy--and perspective.

Coming from where he has been--bouncing from team to team, tearing up his shoulder so completely he missed all of 1996 and basically was assumed to have passed the point of diminishing returns--makes this moment thoroughly satisfying.

The series is tied, 1-1, and he is being counted on to win in October, when less than a year ago he was counted out.

"I was always able to throw, it always came natural," said Saberhagen, who also won the AL Cy Young Award in 1989. "When you win a World Series at an early age, it just seems very easy. My second year, coming back in two different series from 3-1 deficits, I don't think I appreciated it as much.

"Everything that happened this year has been great, but this is what I came for--to pitch in the postseason. I wanted to pitch again the way I did, and I'm very, very close if not all the way there. And I want to continue pitching well in the postseason--that's what it's all about."

Saberhagen did not need to be reminded that the last time he had success in the postseason, he also had Quisenberry with him on the Royals. Quisenberry died Wednesday after a bout with brain cancer.

"Quis was a great ballplayer and a great human being," Saberhagen said. "I've thought about him a lot--prayed a lot--since we found out the cancer had started.

"We went through a lot of the same things with Dick Howser when he had his cancer. . . . So ever since he was diagnosed with brain cancer, he's been on my mind.

"Right now, my thoughts go out to his immediate family. When you heard the prognosis, you kind of had an idea that he wasn't going to be around for a long period of time. But you're not really prepared."

Saberhagen signed with the Red Sox as an unrestricted, unwanted free agent in March 1997 after a short and injury-riddled stay with the Rockies, then scuttled around the minors before popping back up for six late starts for Boston at the end of the '97 season.

Red Sox Manager Jimy Williams penciled him in as the fifth starter as 1998 dawned, but it was lightly sketched, and the eraser was poised.

"We didn't know what his situation was going to be," Williams said.

What happened is that Saberhagen, carefully monitored and sheltered by Williams, regained the bite in his fastball-slider retinue, won his first five decisions and cruised to a 15-8 record, with a 3.96 earned-run average, as other Red Sox starters faltered.

Williams never let him go much beyond 100 pitches in any outing, and maneuvered the rotation to make sure Saberhagen got an extra day off whenever possible.

In response, Saberhagen never experienced shoulder problems and won several critical games, including a huge, 3-2 victory over the New York Yankees on May 30 to end a six-game losing streak.

He is an overwhelming favorite to win the AL comeback-player award--after winning it with the Royals (also after shoulder problems the year before) in 1987.

"I think it's a testament to his ability and toughness, both physically and mentally," said Cleveland Manager Mike Hargrove, "for what he's been able to do this year after everybody had written him off. I think everybody in baseball felt if he did pitch again, he would not be very effective. And he has proven everybody wrong.

"Any time you face a player with that kind of physical and mental toughness, you have got to be concerned."

Hargrove actually has specific reason to comprehend the problems his batters will face today--he faced Saberhagen several times at the end of his own career.

"I remember he had that nasty slider," Hargrove said. "And I remember not looking forward to facing him."

To make things even more emotional for the Saberhagen family today, his wife, Lynn, is scheduled to sing the national anthem before the game. It's a repeat performance of the home opener, when her rendition preceded an amazing, seven-run, ninth-inning rally (capped by Mo Vaughn's grand slam) to beat the Seattle Mariners.

Yes, it was a comeback victory.

"She's always a tough act to follow," Saberhagen said.

"I'll probably get more nervous for her than for me.

"But she got us off to a good start the beginning of the year--we scored seven runs in the bottom of the ninth. . . . I hope we don't have to do that again, though."

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