BALTIMORE — There are saves, there are "tough" saves, and there are saves that defy all logic. Some statistical organization may have to find a new label to classify Eric Gagne's escape act Sunday.
With a runner on third base and no outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, the Dodger closer struck out Melvin Mora and Brian Roberts and got Chris Singleton to fly out to left field to preserve a 2-1 interleague victory over the Baltimore Orioles before 38,569 in Camden Yards.
Dodger left-hander Odalis Perez spun eight masterful innings, giving up one run and four hits and striking out 10. Right fielder Brian Jordan knocked in runs with a first-inning double and a third-inning sacrifice fly, and the Dodger infield turned three double plays, helping the team stay two games behind Arizona in the National League West.
But the real drama didn't begin until the ninth, when Oriole pinch-hitter Gary Matthews led off with a double, ending Gagne's string of 13 consecutive batters retired dating to May 29, and took third on a botched pickoff play.
A grounder through a drawn-in infield or a fly ball to the outfield--or perhaps a suicide squeeze--would tie the score, and as Matthews stood at third, "I thought we had it," he said. "I thought it was a no-brainer."
Then Gagne, the right-hander who has a major league-leading 21 saves in 22 opportunities, who has a 1.39 earned-run average and has been almost untouchable all season, dialed his game up to a level few figured existed.
First, he struck out Mora on an 88-mph changeup. After falling behind Roberts, 3 and 0, Gagne came back with three strikes, using a changeup for strike two and whiffing Roberts with a 98-mph fastball. The Dodgers exhaled, infielders retreated to normal depth, and Gagne retired Singleton on a lazy fly ball.
"Having Gagne out there ... you feel a little uneasy in that situation, but you're not worried, and there's only a few teams in baseball who can feel like that," Dodger right fielder Shawn Green said. "He's the biggest reason we're where we are right now.
"He's shortened the game, and he makes everyone's job easier, the bullpen and the rotation. As a lineup, you know if you get a lead late in the game, most times it's over. That's something the Yankees have had over the last seven years, something the Giants and Padres have had, but not many teams can say that."
Gagne came of age as a closer April 11, when the starter-turned-reliever struck out Jeff Kent and retired Reggie Sanders on a fly ball with runners on first and third and one out to preserve a 4-3 victory over San Francisco. But Sunday's save may have put him in another class.
"If anyone had any questions about Gagne, you can dismiss them now, because it just doesn't get any better than that," Dodger Manager Jim Tracy said. "I don't know what else you can ask him to do to be considered one of the dominant closers in the league."
Jordan went one step further.
"I've played with Dennis Eckersley, with Lee Smith, some of the best closers in the game," he said. "I tell you what. If he stays healthy, he'll rank right up there when his career is over."
Gagne's career as a closer didn't begin until this spring, when the Dodgers, unable to trade for an established closer, gave him the job, almost by default.
Tracy talked about employing a closer-by-committee system, but it was clearly evident that Gagne had the best stuff of any reliever, and the only question was whether he had the mental makeup to handle the role.
But Gagne has bounced back from his only blown save of the season, at Atlanta on May 7, by converting 11 consecutive save opportunities, and any doubts about whether he'd wilt under pressure have been erased. Closing seems to suit Gagne's mentality, as evidenced by his reaction to Sunday's predicament.
"It was fun," Gagne said. "I was pumped because Odalis pitched a great game, and I didn't want to mess it up. I didn't back down. I stayed positive, stayed aggressive and tried to work myself up."
Gagne so baffled the Orioles that Manager Mike Hargrove and several players marveled at his "nasty split-fingered pitch." Gagne doesn't throw a splitter; that was a changeup. There is no question about his fastball, though. It reaches 98 mph, and few have been able to catch up to it.
"I hope the hitters are [intimidated]," Gagne said. "I want to make them feel uncomfortable. That makes it easier for you."
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*--* This is the sixth season for interleague play. Victories by season: Year AL NL 1997 98 117 1998 114 110 1999 116 135 2000 136 115 2001 132 120 2002 18 24 Total 614 621