|The best five minutes in sports|
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist
Eric Gagne pitching the ninth inning with a lead is the best five minutes in sports right now.
You know the numbers. You know that after Wednesday night, he's 55 for 55 in save chances. You know he's given up just 37 hits in 80-plus innings, and that he's walked only 20 lucky bums while striking out 136 and posting an ERA of 1.22.
Them's some mighty numbers. If you want to give Eric the Cy, or if you think he's the MVP, the numbers got your back all the way.
But I'm talking about more than stats. I'm talking about the whole Gagne experience, about fifteen-odd pitches worth of magic every couple of nights and all season long.
He shuffles in from out of the pen, eager but never hurried, with a touch of Gleason in "The Hustler" about him -- part unassuming lug, part damburst running downhill with destruction on its mind.
Guys in the bleachers with G-A-G-N-E painted on their chests rise up to do a happy sumo dance at the sight of him. Women wearing pasted-on Gagne goatees pound their fists on the upper-deck railing. The cool Dodger crowd gets hot.
He stands on the hill looking wrinkled and fierce, nostrils flared, eyes nestled in behind those funky frames, and his salt-sweat lid screwed on tight.
The man ain't pretty; but when he's in, he's all anyone's looking at. Runners on base are just props and the hitter's nothing but a flailing bat and a couple of buckled knees.
Just before he throws, there's a baggy-shirt shrug and sigh to set up every pitch. You'd swear he's a freakin' yogi in the rise and fall of that breath, inhaling confidence, exhaling nerves, and swallowing the game-in-the-balance moment whole.
Any other pitcher comes in to save a game and you're watching to see if he gets the outs; Gagne comes in to hold onto a Dodgers lead and you're watching to see how he gets them.
Will it be the rising fastball? Maybe the run-to-your-mama change? Will the poor guy with the bat just cry mercy from the on-deck circle and go looking for another line of work?
Some Gagne pitches burst in straight lines. Others bend and bite. A few truly wicked ones seem to sneak over the way Sandburg's fog did, on little cat feet.
Like Tommy Smothers working a yo-yo, he pulls string after string, hitting 98 mph on one pitch, coasting over the plate doing 72 the next.
His right leg waggles wide at the release point, his right arm whips through the air with perfect pitch and pop, and the skip-and-a-jump thing he does following through and off the mound says the work is easy and fun.
Even Vin Scully, who never plays the homer, giggles when Gagne throws. You can't blame him -- it's great to watch.
Scrappy underdogs are compelling, steady workhorses get our respect, and tight games and big plays are thrilling. But to see a man at the height of his powers and in complete control of his environment, that's the goods; that's the elemental force of Jim Brown, the preternatural composure and otherworldly lift of Jordan.
And right now, it's the puppet-master power and precision of Eric Gagne.
Eric knows things now most of us will never know. He feels a kind of control and confidence we only dream of, and he's experiencing a stretch of invulnerability we can barely imagine. Over the course of a season, he's compiled numbers so good -- opponents are hitting .134 against him! -- that nothing he's done night-to-night could surprise us. But still, each outing's been gripping because each outing's been a chance to witness some little part of something great.
When I said a Gagne ninth is the best five minutes in sports these days, I was talking about this brush with greatness. But I was talking about something else, too: the chance that it might disappear with any pitch.
He's got 55 straight saves this year; 63 dating back to last year. He's a lock every time out. He's untouchable. You watch him pitch and you absolutely believe that.
But it's only true until it isn't, of course. It's only true until somebody gets hold of one the way Hank Blalock did in the All-Star Game. Right now, Gagne's a pitching fool from outer space; but when that moment comes, he'll just be a very, very good but very mortal right-hander on in relief.
All his appearances are charged with this threat. We watch him with a combination of awe and dread. We hang in the balance until another third out is in the books.
That edgy feeling -- the way it resolves itself in an "I'll be damned, he did it again," and the way it cranks back up every time he comes lumbering in from the bullpen -- is what's made Gagne's saves so extraordinary this year.
Assuming the Dodgers don't make the playoffs, you have five games left to get your last dose of that feeling for a while. Tune in.
Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.