Gagne turns into the perfect closer

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

LOS ANGELES -- Eric Gagne, already imposing when he takes to the mound with his goggles and goatee, is even more unnerving when he's blowing -- or floating -- pitches past batters.

Working on a closer's perfect season, the Dodgers' reliever is 43-0 in save situations this year, giving up only two runs in 42 2-3 innings, with a 0.42 ERA and 76 strikeouts in that span.

He "swept" four different three-game series, earning a save in each game, and saved almost two-thirds of Los Angeles' 67 wins.

Oddly enough, his only blown save this year came in the All-Star game.

"He's unbelievable," said the New York Mets' Roger Cedeno, who actually homered off Gagne in a non-save situation last year. "He's tough, especially the way he's been pitching this year. He's got everybody out of control because nobody knows what he's going to throw."

In just his second season as a closer, Gagne has set a major league record for consecutive saves to start a year, and is one away from establishing the mark for most saves in a row in one season.

His most recent save, in Saturday's 2-1 win over the Mets, tied Tom Gordon's mark of 43 straight in a season. The Dodgers' closer has converted 51 consecutive save opportunities going back to last year, three shy of Gordon's 54 in a row in 1998-99 when he was with Boston.

"Last year was my first year, and going through all the stress and new challenges, I learned a lot and am still learning. But I feel a lot more confident this year," said Gagne, who established a club record with 52 saves (in 56 chances) last season.

"When you have success, it's a lot of fun. When you've been there, know you can succeed, it's a lot easier to go out there and do your job. I have more confidence in my curve now, throw it with conviction in any situation. That's a big difference this year."

Goggles aren't to intimidate

Gagne, whose soft-spoken demeanor belies his imposing persona on the mound, explained that he doesn't wear the goggles for effect.

"I can't wear contacts because my eyes are scarred from getting hit with hockey sticks," said Gagne, who grew up in Montreal as a rough-and-tumble defenseman in youth hockey.

The 27-year-old Gagne throws a fastball in the mid 90-mph range, but he also serves up some pitches in the 70s.

"His fastball, changeup and curveball, one's 95, one's 85, one's 75 or 70, so he's got real different speeds," Los Angeles catcher Paul Lo Duca said. "Whenever you face a guy like him, it's tough because not everything he throws is hard."

Lo Duca has heard opposing batters muttering to themselves.

"He's feared and he's obviously the kind of guy you don't want to face. There's been a lot of guys who say he's just nasty," Lo Duca said.

Gagne considers strategy -- not merely throwing fastballs -- a key to closing.

"I don't think throwing hard has anything to do with my success. A lot of people can throw hard. It's about keeping hitters honest, changing speed, keeping them off-balance and changing the eye level -- moving the ball up and down, in and out. That's what it's all about," he said.

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