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Surgery Is Tommy-Gone

Gagne's elbow pain was caused by an irritated nerve, not a torn ligament, and he will return much sooner.

June 25, 2005|Ben Bolch | Times Staff Writer

Game on for 2006.

In a stunning reversal of fortune, Eric Gagne is expected to return by the start of spring training next season after doctors discovered Friday that the burning sensation in the Dodger closer's right elbow was caused by an irritated nerve -- not a torn ulnar collateral ligament.

Team physicians Frank Jobe and Ralph Gambardella had expected to find enough damage in the elbow to warrant a second ligament-replacement surgery for Gagne, who had the so-called Tommy John procedure performed in 1997.

Instead, they found a mostly sound ligament but an irritated sensory nerve that they relocated during a 90-minute procedure at the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic in Los Angeles.

With major surgery averted, Gagne's recovery time was sliced from about a year to six months. He could resume throwing within a couple of months.

"We're ecstatic that we have a chance to have him for the whole year next year," Dodger General Manager Paul DePodesta said. "It's great news."

Gagne, still groggy from the anesthesia, smiled and hoisted a fist into the air when told that he would not require a second Tommy John surgery, Jobe said during a conference call with reporters.

"We're talking about a guy that has an opportunity to resume the pursuit of becoming the best closer that's ever done it in the history of the game," Manager Jim Tracy said of Gagne, who had 152 saves from 2002 through 2004. "It's quite a relief."

Yhency Brazoban has converted 13 of 16 save opportunities in Gagne's absence. Gagne, the hard-throwing right-hander whose season debut had been delayed by knee and elbow injuries, had converted all eight save opportunities before being shut down after complaining of a burning sensation in the elbow June 12.

Gagne's symptoms and two MRI exams appeared to indicate a torn ligament, but Jobe said all Gagne did "was jangle that nerve, and his brain interpreted it as the same thing." Jobe said it was rare but not unprecedented for MRI exams to be so misleading.

"One of the big principles in medicine is, of course, you treat patients, you don't treat pictures," Jobe said. "His symptoms were typical of what you would expect [with a torn ligament]."

Jobe said an examination of the previous repair to Gagne's elbow showed it to be in good condition, with only "a little abrasion" in the ligament.

"If it had been severely damaged we would just have redone the whole procedure," Jobe said, "but this was just too good a repair to discard."

In order to examine the elbow joint, doctors had to surgically split the ligament and sew it back together, a procedure that will require months to fully heal.

"We're hopeful at this point that he might be ready for the beginning of spring training next year," DePodesta said. "Obviously, it's a big stretch of time between now and then. A lot can happen, and it can go both ways."

Catcher Paul Bako also underwent surgery to repair the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Bako will be out until next season.

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