VERO BEACH, Fla — VERO BEACH, Fla. -- If 52 saves won't improve your standing, nothing will, and Eric Gagne recently learned how high he ranks with the Dodgers.
After making the Dodgers look like geniuses for converting him from a starting pitcher last season, the second-year closer will be featured on the cover of the club's 2003 media guide. A picture showing Gagne pumping his fist after a save will be the only element in front of a blue background on the cover.
The honor is reserved for a club's premier player, and Gagne reached that status in a breakthrough season. He didn't expect to be at the forefront of a club that includes All-Star right fielder Shawn Green, but he's the cover guy this year.
"I don't like it because it feels weird," Gagne said Thursday after the first workout at Dodgertown. "I'm not even used to seeing myself in the newspaper. It's fun because I've gotten a lot of attention now, a lot of people recognize me, but I didn't expect them to do this."
Gagne exceeded the Dodgers' wildest expectations, establishing a club record for saves that also marked the fifth-highest single-season total in major league history.
He went 4-1 with a 1.97 earned-run average, striking out 114 and walking 16 in 82 1/3 innings while suffering only four blown saves. Green is considered the club's franchise player, but many believe the Canadian right-hander was the Dodgers' most valuable player last season.
"Gagne is definitely deserving of the honor," said Derrick Hall, senior vice president. "We have several players who arguably could or should be on the cover as well, but this is an exciting photo that captures his enthusiasm, intensity, uniqueness and character of the overall team."
Kazuhisa Ishii, who threw on the mound and participated in fielding drills, has moved forward after being struck by a line drive and having a titanium plate inserted into his head last season.
Now, if he could only convince everyone.
"If I had any psychological problems, mental problems, then I wouldn't be playing baseball," Ishii said through an interpreter. "I don't really show that [fear] so you can't see it in me.
"I don't remember it, but it looked like it hurt very bad [on the replays he watched]. It's in the past. I'm not worried about it at all. I'm just answering because everybody asks. For me, it's not an issue."
Ishii's poor performance in the second half (3-5, 5.57 ERA) is an issue.
The left-hander said he hopes that improved conditioning and less golf in the spring will enable him to finish stronger.
"He was kind of like a rookie that comes into the big leagues to start," pitching coach Jim Colborn said. "They're going full out from the first day and they don't understand the pace of the season and the pace of the games. That certainly was the case with Ishii, in my opinion, but he's got it now. I bet he'll be more consistent and he'll be stronger at the end."
Darren Dreifort said his right knee, twice surgically repaired, responded well after he pitched on a mound for the first time since late July. He threw 30 fastballs.
"It was just nice to be doing what everybody else was doing," said Dreifort, sidelined last spring while rehabilitating from reconstructive elbow surgery for the second time. "First few times out always feel a little bit awkward, but it feels good."
Manager Jim Tracy, on San Francisco Manager Felipe Alou, Tracy's mentor, saying the Giants are going to win the World Series: "It could increase our initiative." ... Pitcher Odalis Perez, dealing with a family matter in the Dominican Republic, has told the Dodgers he will arrive in camp soon.