BOSTON – Eric Gagne had been a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox for a little more than two weeks, only not a very good one, a possibility that hadn't crossed his mind when he picked out a nice apartment within walking distance of Fenway Park.
So, it was mid-August, and he'd blown a save to the Los Angeles Angels, Orlando Cabrera and Vladimir Guerrero wrecking everything with run-scoring hits, a one-run Red Sox lead gone, the New York Yankees not too far back.
Gagne's earned-run average in seven games in a Red Sox uniform was 15.00, as though somebody had carelessly mislaid the decimal. He'd fouled up a sturdy start by Josh Beckett and a decent setup job by Manny Delcarmen, along with the mood in an already edgy Back Bay.
Gagne quickly dressed and left the clubhouse, angry with himself, mystified as to how he'd become so stinkin' hittable, bearing the insight that while he'd come to stabilize the Red Sox bullpen, he couldn't get outs and couldn't get the ball to Jonathan Papelbon, either.
He slipped out the door and into the streets, where he'd hoped to find solitude along his route home and instead found … people. Upset people. Lots of them. Head down, walking hard, it was then he found it is one thing to be booed off the mound, another to be booed off the block.
Six weeks later, on the eve of the Red Sox's division series opener against the Angels, Gagne managed a laugh.
"Yeah, it wasn't really smart to go right away," he said. "I should have waited for traffic to clear."
Such are the treacheries of late-inning relief, a few overthrown fastballs, and the realization that being a great closer in L.A. and Texas would be a very different experience from being a disappointing setup man in Boston.
It's OK, though, Gagne said. In his past eight appearances, he has allowed runs in only one of them and his pitches are generally going where he wants them to, making his neighborhood more like a neighborhood and less like a gauntlet.
"I'm very optimistic," he said. "I've been throwing the ball really good the last few weeks. That's all I really care about. I knew I didn't forget how to do it."
Still, of the firefights ahead for the Red Sox and Angels over as many as eight days, each team seeking its second World Series championship in the decade, there may be none greater than the eighth inning, where Gagne is supposed to reside.
The strains and small misfortunes of the six-month season have left both managers reasonable options with which to reach their closers. There are, however, no sure things, and those are the nightly decisions – by Terry Francona and Mike Scioscia – that will turn the series.
The Angels had been playing seven-inning games for years, Scot Shields and Brendan Donnelly opening nightly for Francisco Rodriguez's fastball-slider-point-to-the-heavens routine. Donnelly is in Boston rehabbing his elbow now, and Shields has been so erratic since July he's slipped into a three-way, late-inning rotation with Justin Speier and Darren Oliver. Not only that, but Shields' career ERA against the Red Sox (7.71) and at Fenway Park (17.65) covers enough innings to conclude this isn't about the occasional bad pitch or unlucky bat-handle flare; the Red Sox like hitting against Shields.
Donnelly, who was – and remains – a close friend of Shields, said there were ways Shields coped with his ineffectiveness against the Red Sox.
"But, I can't tell you," he said, smiling. "It happened late at night. Then we'd be throwing bullpens at 9 o'clock the next morning, just trying to figure it out. You throw a bullpen, you prove to yourself you can still throw quality strikes."
Like Gagne, Shields said a few late-September appearances allowed him to mend his mechanics, and, hey, a new month means a new Shields.
"That's all in the past," he said. "This is a different season. It's a whole new ballgame right now. I feel great."
Of Scioscia's other eighth-inning prospects, Speier has never pitched in the postseason and Oliver is a left-hander who is more effective against right-handed hitters. In a crunch, the Angels could be vulnerable again to David Ortiz, who three Octobers ago sent the Angels home with a single dramatic swing, which followed a few other memorable swings.
Asked to name the pitcher he'd summon for Ortiz duty, Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher paused for a moment and said, "I think Koufax would get him out."
Though Francona fans through his eighth-inning options, from Hideki Okajima (tired arm) to Delcarmen (great stuff, no playoff experience) to Gagne, he's clearly counting on Gagne, a September project in patience that cost him at least one game (in Toronto, when Gagne lost the strike zone and allowed three runs) and perhaps more.
"I don't know that any role even matters anymore," Francona said. "[But] for him to handle it the way he did says a lot about him. That's part of the reason I need to not bail on the guy."
To win much of anything, the Red Sox require the Eric Gagne they traded for, just as the Angels need the Scot Shields they once clung to.
"So," Francona said, "I just didn't feel comfortable running away from him."
Now, if Francona would walk him home…