Gagne on comeback trail to dominance

Gagne gets on comeback trail

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Eric Gagne threw a simulated inning on Sunday and looked a lot like how Gagne was supposed to look.

That was a small, but necessary piece of good news for the Texas Rangers, who are hoping that Gagne can regain something like the form that made him baseball's most dominant closer from 2002-04. That was before elbow surgery and then back surgery limited him to just 16 Major League appearances over the past two seasons.

The simulated inning was part of a cautious progression this spring for Gagne that has included pitching in a "B" game and in a Minor League game in the last week. If he feels fine on Monday, the Rangers plan to pitch him in a Major League exhibition game on Tuesday against the Giants or on Wednesday against the Cubs.

The Rangers are taking an understandably conservative approach with Gagne.

"We're going to stay patient," general manager Jon Daniels said on Sunday. "I'd much rather be protective of him now, than protective of him later."

Gagne, also understandably, is eager for the recovery process to move forward.

Asked about being impatient, Gagne smiled and responded: "Always. I mean that's why I've been hurt for two years; I'm not very patient. That's why the trainers are out there every day, talking to me every day. They're slowing me down. I'm trying to throw 100 mph, I'm trying to be where I was three years ago.

"That's why it's hard for me mentally. But I've got to be where I'm at right now, make sure I don't push it too far, make sure I really listen to my body, listen to my elbow."

In his simulated inning on Sunday, Gagne threw 20 pitches, 10 of them for strikes. If that strike ratio seemed a bit low, it can be at least partly explained by the fact that he was getting exceptional movement on his pitches. He threw all of his pitches, and, alternating against veteran infielder Desi Relaford and catcher Chris Stewart, he gave up a ground-ball single, got a lineout to second, a swinging strikeout, gave up a walk and got another strikeout. The walk and the strikeout occurred in the same at-bat, but that's why it's a simulated game. Without a radar gun, Gagne's velocity could not be precisely measured, but he obviously threw hard.

"He threw the ball well," manager Ron Washington said. "He's using all his pitches and the good thing is every time he finishes, he feels good."

Beyond pitching in a Major League game, the next step in the recovery progression would be throwing in back-to-back games. Washington said that was not necessarily an issue for Gagne.

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"A lot of it is going to be determined by how he tells us that he feels," Washington said. "We're not going to try to force anything. We're looking for him for a full year, we're not looking for him for two or three ballgames."

Gagne himself was pleased with his work.

"Really good, for 9:30 [a.m.]," he said with a smile. "My arm feels good. I threw everything. I overthrew some fastballs. Today, my balance was a little off; I think I was rushing a little bit on my fastballs. I think it's normal.

"Basically, what we're focused on now is how it's going to feel [on Monday]. Today, it feels good and I knew it would. The big day is tomorrow. The last time, I threw it felt really good the next day. Every time I throw I want to make sure that the next day I feel really good."

On the question of pitching in back-to-back games, Gagne said: "From the progression we've had so far the last two weeks, I think about a week from now. I can't say for sure, you know, it's always day to day. As long as I know I can do it, I don't really have to do it. I want to save those days for the games that really count.

If Gagne can regain anything resembling the form of his peak years with the Dodgers, the Rangers could have a terrific combination for the eighth and ninth innings in 2007. Akinori Otsuka stepped into the closer's role for the Rangers last season and pitched more than commendably, recording 32 saves in 36 opportunities with a 2.11 ERA.

The presence of Otsuka could also make life easier for Gagne.

"You can never have too many options in the bullpen," Gagne said. "You never know what's going to happen during the season, ever. It's always like that. The more pitchers you have, the more depth you have. It's easier to get through the bad days. There's always somebody being hurt so you've got to have more options out there.

"As a closer, you know your team relies on you, because you're the last one to touch the ball so you don't want to mess it up for them. If there's a great option right behind me, it's a lot easier for me to say, 'You know what, I need a day off today,' if the bullpen hasn't been overused or anything like that. That's what great bullpens do, they just pick each other up. That's what we did [in Los Angeles] in '03 and '04 when we had great bullpens. I didn't really miss any days, because I was healthy, but we already had some guys ready to close."

Right now, the Rangers are hoping that Gagne will be ready to close and will resemble the pitcher he once was in Los Angeles. Gagne saved 152 games over three seasons with the Dodgers, and his combination of power and command made him virtually unhittable at times. The one simulated inning on Sunday was a small step, but it was also an encouraging step, a step in the direction of Gagne's complete comeback.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.