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Ross Newhan / ON BASEBALL

A Near-Perfect Season Knocks Gagne Cy-Ways

September 28, 2003|Ross Newhan

It has taken almost the entire season, but I have finally figured out why Eric Gagne's uniform always looks so disheveled, as if he has been toting bags of cement -- and that's it exactly.

For six months, he carried the weighty burden of the hopeless Dodger offense, which is not to say he carried it alone. He had help from colleagues on baseball's best pitching staff.

But when the Broken Bats scored enough runs to put a pre-weekend total of 84 victories within the club's grasp, it was Gagne flawlessly saving 65% of them, converting 24 of his 55 saves when the lead was only one run, striking out 45% of opposing batters and producing a phenomenal strikeout-to-walk ratio of almost seven to one.

"I'm sort of in awe, like everybody else," said Steve Hirdt, the perceptive voice of the Elias Sports Bureau, baseball's statistical house.

"There are good seasons, and then there are seasons in which you couldn't have done any better, and you rarely see that in sports.

"I mean, averages, statistics, calculations and things like that generally are not designed to deal with perfection, and what we have here is a unique situation.

"I don't know if you can say it was literally perfection because he lost a couple games in relief, but when you're talking about an opponents' batting average of .130 or so, more than 130 strikeouts in 81 innings and those 55 saves in 55 chances ..."

Hirdt was suggesting that Gagne has been as close to perfection as a closer gets, and the "interesting aspect from what I've seen of him is that he combines the two schools" of closing philosophy: a dominator with his mid- to high-90s heater, and a trickster with his changeup in the 70s.

"He has to be a great comfort to the Dodgers," Hirdt said. "Unfortunately, they didn't have one of the highest-scoring lineups, and they probably would have liked to use him even more than they did."

The perfect wrap-up for this near-perfect year under the weight of all that cement would be for Gagne to be recognized as the National League's most valuable player.

In many other years, he could easily have become only the NL's second relief pitcher -- Jim Konstanty was the first (and last) in 1950 -- to win the MVP award.

However, this year's cast of MVP candidates in the NL might stretch longer than the state's recall ballot and pack more punch.

Gagne had appeared in 76 games before the weekend. Despite his dominance, the feeling here is that he can't be awarded the MVP over players who were out there almost every day and produced knockout credentials.

The Cy Young Award? Yes.

The MVP? No.

Here's how I see it:

MVP

National League: 1 -- Barry Bonds, San Francisco; 2 -- Albert Pujols, St. Louis; 3 -- Gary Sheffield, Atlanta.

American League: 1 -- David Ortiz, Boston; 2 -- Alex Rodriguez, Texas; 3 -- Carlos Delgado, Toronto.

Comment: They might as well give Bonds permanent possession of the NL award. This will be his sixth if he wins the vote by a committee of the Baseball Writers Assn. of America.

Pujols, who romanced the Triple Crown, can be excused if he joins Rodriguez in saying, "What do I have to do?" He finished second to Bonds last year and could join Mickey Mantle as the only runner-up to the same MVP winner two years in a row, Roger Maris having outpolled Mantle in 1960 and '61.

Bonds, however, stands alone.

He continued to be iced and isolated by opposing managers but still drove San Francisco to a division title with on-base and slugging percentages in the vicinity of his records for those categories, and with 45 homers and a .339 batting average.

As deep and contentious as the NL field is -- Jim Thome, Javy Lopez and Sheffield are also prime candidates -- the AL is something of an MVP wasteland.

Call it a strange mix.

There were high statistical performances by players on teams finishing so far behind that "value" was difficult to measure, such as Rodriguez, Delgado and Garret Anderson.

There were lesser performances by players on contending or championship teams who either missed or performed poorly during parts of the season, such as reigning MVP Miguel Tejada, who put together a big second half only after a first-half struggle.

There were performances by players who were not alone on their team in making a valuable contribution.

Ortiz had plenty of help on the offensively ferocious Red Sox, but his surprising totals of 31 homers and 101 runs batted in, along with his infectious personality -- there he was on the Fenway Park mound after Boston had clinched the wild-card berth, singing Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" -- seemed to be contagious as his team battled the evil Yankees and other familiar ghosts.

Rodriguez, who dominates AL statistics again but went four for 29 with runners in scoring position while his Rangers were absorbing a 2-20 wipeout in May and June, told Texas writers he now puts more credence in the Players Choice awards voted by fellow union members.

"I've given up on winning the [MVP]," he said.

Cy Young

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