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Blowing Smoke

Dodgers haven't given Gagne and fans much chance to pump them up lately

August 05, 2003|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

"Welcome to the Jungle?" A more fitting soundtrack for closer Eric Gagne's high-energy Dodger Stadium entrances might be that old Eagles hit, "Take It Easy."

Because while Guns N' Roses blares on the loudspeakers, and fans rise to clap and groove to the heavy metal beat, and pandemonium breaks out in a stadium that used to have the late-inning feel of a Montreal Expo home game, Gagne seems more like a guy headed to Lamaze class.

"I'm trying to relax my face muscles," Gagne said, when asked what he's thinking as he ambles toward the mound in the ninth inning. "If you relax the muscles in your face, your brain will be relaxed. If you relax your jaw, you'll relax your brain."

And all this time, you thought Gagne used the noise to whip himself into a frenzy, to fire himself up so he could throw his high-octane fastball through the backstop?

Not quite. Gagne appreciates the fan reaction, and he does gain an edge from the ninth-inning ritual that evolved as he developed into one of baseball's dominant closers last season.

"When I see the fans getting on their feet, getting loud, it's unbelievable -- I get goose bumps," said Gagne, who takes a 1-3 record, 1.70 earned-run average and 35 saves into tonight's game against the Cincinnati Reds in Dodger Stadium.

"I feed off their positive energy. It gives me an extra mile per hour on my fastball. It helps me a lot more on those nights you may not have your focus. You think, 'These fans are really into it; I've got to give them their money's worth.' "

But Gagne is careful not to get too wrapped up in the moment, lest those goggles of his steam up. He might get so pumped he'd lose concentration, as he did when he forgot to back up home plate on July 2, a brain cramp that allowed the San Diego Padres to score the eventual winning run in the 10th inning of a 4-3 victory.

Those kinds of mistakes are rare for Gagne, the starter-turned-closer who has converted all 35 of his save opportunities this season -- that blown save and loss in the All-Star game don't count against his record -- and has a streak of 43 saves dating to last Aug. 28.

"He's pretty mellow, low-key, even-keeled," reliever Paul Quantrill said. "He's intense when he gets in there but what has made him excel is, he has his head about him. He knows how to get the job done. He likes the hype, the buildup, but he's not going to come out there doing cartwheels just because the music is blaring."

Gagne would probably do a few cartwheels and back flips to get a few more save opportunities. The Dodgers have lost eight of their last 11 games, falling out of the National League wild-card race, and Gagne has had only one save opportunity since July 22. When he pitched the eighth inning of a 7-3 loss Thursday in Philadelphia, the closer came in only because he needed the work.

"I've got to get out there," Gagne said, acknowledging the frustration that comes with a lack of meaningful work. "It [stinks] that we're losing, but we've just got to start playing better. We have to stop feeling sorry for ourselves. We've got to figure out a way to win and get me in the game. It's hard to sit on the bench and try not to get [mad] because we're so much better.

"That's what [ticks] me off. If we were a bad team, I wouldn't even care. I would just go through the motions and say, 'All right, we're not good, we [stink].' But we don't. We're better than that. We've just got to find a way to win."

When the Dodgers find a way to win, Gagne is usually part of it.

The right-hander's fastball hits 98 mph regularly, his late-moving changeup has been devastating and his slow curve has frozen many hitters.

Gagne has struck out 88 and walked 13 in 53 innings and has limited opponents to a .137 average (25 for 183), by far the lowest among major league relievers.

But as Quantrill noted, "Every year you come to camp and see five guys with as good an arm as him."

What has Gagne in baseball's upper crust of closers is a combination of confidence and comfort, the former generated by his record-setting success as a first-year closer in 2002, the latter the result of the routine he developed during his breakthrough season and carried into 2003.

"It's a do-or-die situation, but I don't see it that way," Gagne, 27, said. "A lot of people around baseball see it that way because that's the thing you remember, the ninth inning. But I don't think about that. I think about making all of my pitches, clearing my mind, and if I do all my stuff before [a game], that's how I feel comfortable, how I feel positive, how I feel in my zone. It's kind of weird."

Not really. Baseball players are creatures of habit, relying on routine and ritual to cope with the stress and daily grind of the game. Closers, though, seem to take it to another level.

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