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ALL-STAR GAME

Closing Ranks Behind Gagne

Baseball: Among his peers, Dodger pitcher's emergence as a relief ace is regarded without surprise, or suspicion.

July 09, 2002|JASON REID | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MILWAUKEE — Dodger closer Eric Gagne arrived at his first All-Star game Monday, seemingly bursting onto the stage from nowhere.

But his show-stopping act has steadily improved, Gagne's All-Star peers said, helping the Dodgers move atop the National League West.

The stunning success of Gagne was one of the hot topics before All-Star game workouts at Miller Park, and he handled the national spotlight as calmly as approaching the ninth inning. The National and American leagues meet today in the first All-Star game at Miller Park and the third in Milwaukee, and Gagne fits right in among baseball's best.

"I'm not so much surprised he could [close], he has a 97-mph heater and that changeup to go along with it, but I kind of sit back and just marvel at the fact that he's been so dominant," San Diego Padre closer Trevor Hoffman said. "He really makes our job look pretty darn easy."

Gagne, 26, leads the major leagues in saves despite less than four months on the job, emerging as the top on-field story of the first half. He is thriving after two-plus shaky seasons in the Dodger rotation, converting 32 of 34 save opportunities without a decision, and has a 1.39 earned-run average in 42 appearances. The right-hander has overwhelmed the competition, limiting batters to a .167 average and striking out 62 in 45 1/3 innings.

So what's the rest of the NL West to do?

"When a player has got confidence going out there, like what he feels right now, you feel you're invincible," said Arizona Diamondback left fielder Luis Gonzalez. "All we can do is hope he loses that confidence real quick, so we can catch up with [him]."

Gagne said they shouldn't hold their breath.

"I know I can get three outs in the ninth inning," he said. "I know I can do the job."

Formerly obscure players making strides this season face speculation about using performance enhancers because former All-Stars Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco alleged that steroid use is rampant in baseball.

Gagne has become the closer after going 11-14 with a 4.61 ERA in two-plus seasons as a starter, and players believe he has blossomed because of fewer innings, maturity and confidence.

Yet, Gagne felt compelled to address speculation in June, telling The Times, "I know what I did, I know how hard I worked in the off-season, and it didn't have anything to do with [steroids]." He no longer comments on the topic.

New York Yankee first baseman Jason Giambi said steroid speculation is unfair.

"It's kind of sickening," he said. "Guys work their butts off year-round, and now it's, 'He's having success because he's on steroids.' It doesn't work like that. Guys take a lot of pride in what they do, and all this speculating gets kind of ridiculous. People do have great years.

"This is no longer a sport where guys report to spring training and get in shape. Guys are showing up in shape. They're working out year-round. The talent level has moved dramatically [over the years]. Guys take a lot of pride in what they do. I know it's a hot topic, but all this speculation is just wrong."

The Dodgers confirmed that Gagne gained fewer than 10 pounds in the off-season. His fastball increased from about 94 mph to 97 mph, but players said that should not be taken as a sign. It is not uncommon for velocity to improve when starters are converted to relievers and aren't required to pitch as long.

Moreover, players said, Gagne isn't some journeyman stiff who suddenly burst onto the scene. He was considered one of baseball's top prospects and may have simply turned a corner.

"He was a really good starter," said Atlanta Brave center fielder Andruw Jones. "I faced him and he was always tough. The difference is he's making [fewer] mistakes now than when he was starting.

"He's a totally different pitcher now because he pitches [smarter]. He faces three or four batters and pitches better to those guys than when he faced the [whole lineup]. That's why he's different."

Boston Red Sox right-hander Derek Lowe took the opposite route to becoming the AL starter. The former closer, booed off the mound at Fenway Park last season, is 12-4 with a 2.36 ERA, earning his second appearance.

"I was here two years ago as a reliever, and this team, I came in here with no expectations," Lowe said. "To be here, starting an All-Star game, is more than I could have anticipated. Coming in here and looking at that lineup, it's going to tough, but it's going to be a great challenge."

New York Yankee Manager Joe Torre, guiding the AL for the fifth time, tabbed Lowe when Pedro Martinez backed out of the game.

"Pedro Martinez, in my opinion, is one of the best pitchers in baseball," Torre said of the three-time Cy Young Award winner. "I'm sure Derek would have understood if we decided to go with Pedro because of what he's done in the past.

"I think it's a great game to honor people [for breakthrough seasons], but I'm not sure we would have done that. It sure would have been very difficult to not seriously consider Pedro. I'm glad I didn't have to make that decision."

Arizona Manager Bob Brenly is leading the NL for the first time. He said his choice was simple, naming Diamondback 14-game winner Curt Schilling.

Schilling, leading the majors in victories, is scheduled to start for the second time. He backed out of last season's start because he pitched two days before the game, but plans to take the turn this time.

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