Game over, redux
By Tim Brown, Yahoo Sports
July 17, 2007
There are, perhaps, more satisfying ways to spend a summer revival for a closer, who, for a few healthy, extraordinary, icon-creating years with the Los Angeles Dodgers, was the best anyone had ever seen.
His ballclub, the Texas Rangers, secured bench seating on the sellers' end of the impending non-waiver trade deadline by losing 42 of their first 65 games, an experience enhanced by some pointed local criticism of manager Ron Washington and the man who hired him, general manager Jon Daniels.
The month of good baseball (and a contract extension for Daniels) that followed – against the likes of the Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles Angels, no less – altered the sand-and-restore project only slightly, meaning Gagne, along with teammates Mark Teixeira, Sammy Sosa, Kenny Lofton, Brad Wilkerson and Akinori Otsuka, to name a few, will have spent July having their names scratched into rosters all over the game.
It is what losing brings. That is, tumult and regret, along with a month-to-month lease on the condo with a neatly packed suitcase in the closet.
"It's hard," he said. "You don't win overnight. And they haven't won a lot here. We're not going to finish in first place this year – you know, maybe – but it's a long process."
Yet when he returned to the general vicinity of his first franchise this weekend for a series against the Angels, Gagne arrived with an airy pleasantness, encouraged by a productive first three months. There were no visible casts or fresh scars, no uncertainties the next ninth-inning lead would be his, no long gazes at radar-gun readings that portended some ruinous structural failure.
He was just a pitcher in his walk year with a 17-team no-trade clause, living well on a fastball that has settled in the low 90s, leaning hard on a disappearing changeup and getting ahead on a soft and reliable curveball.
He has saved 14 leads and blown one save opportunity, that almost two weeks ago in a game the Rangers came back and won anyway. Not to the impossible standards of his Cy Young Award season or the two that bordered it, but efficient nonetheless, Gagne, in his re-entry, is heavy on control and strikeouts, light on opposing baserunners.
Amid word the Arizona Diamondbacks and St. Louis Cardinals – -- neither on the list of organizations to which Gagne would accept a trade – -- were in town for a Gagne viewing Sunday, Gagne pitched a seamless 11th inning, getting two weak fly balls and a changeup-changeup-changeup-fastball strikeout of Kendry Morales to beat the Angels. While awaiting the 98-m.p.h. heater of his youth, or not, Gagne is being compared more regularly to Trevor Hoffman.
"It's not where it was," he said of his fastball. "But, it's fine."
His ERA, in 29 1/3 innings, is 1.23. So, yeah, fine. And he said he is healthy – -- elbow, back, buttocks, knee – -- top to bottom. At 31, he hasn't thrown 600 innings yet, and he's taken to blending his physical limitations with the insight gained watching Greg Maddux in L.A. last season, leading to pitch sequences like changeup-changeup-changeup-fastball-fist-pump.
Additionally, his durability is coming as well. In one recent 11-day stretch, Gagne made six appearances (including once in a day game following a night game), warmed to the point of entering a game one other time, and pitched well in five of the six.
"It's a lot of fun," he said. "It's challenging. It's baseball again."
Given he'd thrown 15 1/3 innings since the 2004 season, Gagne has taken to measuring progress by the pitch, and then by ability to throw the next pitch. For those reasons, Texas has been a good place, even in that hitters' ballpark and out of contention, almost like a boxer training at Alpine altitude.
"It's good," he said. "It's really good. I was kind of, well, scared. I guess I can say 'scared.'… … It It was different. I didn't know what to expect. But, I got here and the guys are unbelievable."
There haven't been enough leads to protect, however, and for that reason there is no telling how long his stay in Texas will last. Maybe another week or two. Maybe another 2½ months. Maybe even longer.
Beyond the partial no-trade clause, Gagne apparently will insist upon being a closer and not a set-up man, thereby preserving his value as a closer in the coming winter's marketplace. The same stipulation led him last winter to the Rangers, who demoted their own closer –-- Otsuka –-- for the chance at Gagne.
While Gagne claimed he'd consider any scenario the Rangers might present to him in the coming days, his agent, Scott Boras, said, "He's a closer. That's what he wants to do. It would have to be a very special situation for him to leave Texas. A lot of what he wanted to do is re-establish himself."
The Rangers, meanwhile, have a direction to choose as they contemplate catching up with the rest of the AL West by next season. Within that, they could hold on to Gagne through the summer and hope to re-sign him then, when the competition could be thick. An extension before then, apparently, is out.
"'Extension' is not a word I, uh, understand," Boras said, chuckling.
So, there's that. The Rangers could trade him to a team that is both on Gagne's list and could use the set-up help –-- the New York Mets and Yankees, the Milwaukee Brewers –-- and let them deal with the consequences of an unhappy player and his high-power agent, though there's no one quite so unhappy as an unhappy Boras.
Gagne, earlier, had carried a more conciliatory tone.
"The way I am as a human being, I didn't commit for one year," he said. "That's the way I did it contract-wise. But, I came here to win. …… I I started something here. I'd like to finish it here. I'm happy here. I'd like to stay here and win here. Is that what they want? I don't know. …… They know they can trade me. Now, I don't really know what they want to do."
The Rangers are taking calls, considering those choices. In the meantime, Gagne goes about being healthy, making pitches, retaking a career that had left him for a while. All in all, it's not been a bad way to spend a summer revival.
"That's why every time I step on the field, I've got a smile," he said. "It's, 'Hey, I'm back.'"
He paused and grinned.
"Next year's going to be better," he said. "Next week's going to be better."
Tim Brown is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. He co-authored with Jim Abbott the memoir “Imperfect: an Improbable Life”. Follow him on Twitter. Send Tim a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated on Tuesday, Jul 17, 2007 11:08 pm, EDT