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BASEBALL 2003

Suddenly, Gagne Is Under the Gun

Velocity is down and pressure is ratcheted up after his breakthrough season, but Dodger closer isn't worried.

March 30, 2003|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

The radar-gun numbers, which glowed like the red-hot embers of a robust campfire last season, have lost some sizzle this spring. That explosive 98-mph fastball he harnessed to become one of baseball's most dominant closers in 2002 hit a speed bump this month, clocking in at 92 or 93 mph.

The loss of velocity, the result of several nagging injuries that slowed his progress this spring, has some concerned that Dodger closer Eric Gagne, who shattered a franchise record with 52 saves while going 4-1 with a 1.97 earned-run average last season, could stumble in 2003.

Nonsense, Gagne says.

"I don't have my great stuff, but my changeup is there, and I feel great physically," Gagne said. "I wasn't able to work out for two weeks [because of a lower-back injury]. I'm not going to throw as hard early in the season, but it's no big deal -- I feel better every time out, and I know it will come back. I know how to get people out. You don't have to throw 98 mph to do that. Just look at Greg Maddux."

True, but if the Dodgers have a one-run lead in the ninth inning of Monday's season opener against the Arizona Diamondbacks in Bank One Ballpark, Dodger fans will be expecting a ninth-inning hammer, not a craftsman.

Gagne, however, is a resourceful sort, as he showed Friday and Saturday in exhibition games against the Angels, mixing well-placed fastballs with his usual devastating changeups to throw scoreless ninth innings and register two saves.

"He has control of a variety of pitches, so he doesn't have to throw as hard to be successful," Dodger pitching coach Jim Colborn said. "Even though he's pitched fewer than normal innings this spring, he should be OK."

To Colborn, Gagne's state of mind may be as important as his physical condition this season. Like Gagne in 2002, Colborn had a breakthrough season in 1973, going 20-12 with a 3.18 ERA and throwing a franchise-record 314 1/3 innings for the Milwaukee Brewers.

The following season, Colborn struggled during a 3-7 start and never fully recovered, finishing with a 10-13 record and 4.06 ERA.

"The year after I won 20, I thought I had arrived," Colborn said. "I didn't understand the dynamic of having anxieties, of being hungry. I felt like I had something already instead of striving for something I didn't have.

"We've talked about this with guys like Gagne and Odalis Perez, about always wanting to get better, never being satisfied. Your first year, there are no expectations, and everything you achieve is gravy. Now, there are expectations, and if you stress too hard, you won't be able to perform at your best."

If Gagne is stressed, it doesn't show. Asked what his expectations are for 2003, the Montreal native and former hockey player said, "Nothing."

He was serious.

"I'm not looking for a repeat of last season," said Gagne, who limited opponents to a .189 batting average in 2002, allowed only 73 baserunners in 82 1/3 innings and went 28 innings from May 4 to July 3, a span of 99 batters, without issuing a walk.

"Everyone talks about statistics -- I don't care about those. It was nice that I did so well, but we didn't make the playoffs. It wasn't any fun watching the Angels win the World Series. I'd rather have 35 saves and make the playoffs. I wouldn't care if I had 15 saves, as long as we make the playoffs."

Whether he acknowledges them or not, there will be lofty expectations for Gagne this season. You don't go from fringe starter to one of baseball's best relievers practically overnight; you don't strike out 114 batters and walk only 16 and convert all but four save opportunities, several of the high-wire variety, and not raise the bar.

"I think people expect him to dominate," Dodger right fielder Shawn Green said. "Whether he has 40 or 55 saves, when he comes into a game, fans expect that more than 90% of the time, the game is over.

"He has a reputation now as a guy people don't want to face, but I think that will work to his benefit because he's one of those guys who loves the pressure cooker. He showed that last year."

Indeed, some of Gagne's most memorable saves in 2002 were his toughest -- the runner-on-third, no-out jam he escaped in Baltimore on June 9, the first-and-third, one-out jam he escaped against Boston on June 22, and the bases-loaded, no-out jam he escaped in St. Louis on July 5.

"I love it," Gagne, 27, said of the pressure that comes with his role. "You just can't wait for the crowd to get loud, to get up when there's two outs and two strikes on the batter. It's a rush of energy. I love the feel of it."

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