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Pitchers packing powerful heat08/06/2004 8:38 AM ET
By Mark Newman / MLB.com
"I just thank God we live in a country where the best and finest in a man can still be brought out."
--John Glenn, in "The Right Stuff"
It is the 25th anniversary of Thomas Wolfe's landmark book about man's quest to break the speed barrier and go into space, about a fraternity of brazen test pilots like Glenn and Chuck Yeager who went where no one had gone before.
By comparison, the guys in the 100-mph Club are not exactly living dangerously here on the green grass of Major League Baseball. But this group is pushing an envelope all their own, where the best and finest can be brought out each day, and you don't get to be part of this fraternity without having the right "stuff."
Or the left stuff.
On one randomly scorching day around baseball, MLB.com wanted to take a look at the hottest heat in the game -- the fastest of the fastballs. Surprisingly, there are seven pitchers -- led by Dodger closer Eric Gagne (102) -- whose miles per hour on their fastballs have been clocked in triple-digits this season. And that doesn't include Arizona's Randy Johnson, who has been topping out around 98 lately but has hit 101 before and may very well again when a hitter least expects it.
Florida right-hander A.J. Burnett was hitting 101 in 2002, and he throws so hard that he once tossed a no-hitter despite walking nine batters. He has had to come back from 2003 Tommy John arm surgery, and those who appreciate medical science might find it even more amazing that he has been clocked at 100 this season at Pro Player Stadium.
How does a pitcher know when he has just pushed the envelope again?
"When you don't feel a thing," Burnett said. "As soon as you let it go, you hear a pop. You can feel it."
You also can see it on the scoreboard and hear it from the crowd.
Catchers have been known to say that you could even smell it. Burning leather.
There has always been a romance with speed, whether it was those test pilots and astronauts or land racers. That's why fans see those speed readouts in the average big-league ballpark today. It seems like it is becoming more common than ever to watch an occasional "100" flash on the board, or on a scout's radar gun, but it still takes your breath away when it happens and sometimes more than others.
It will go down as one of the most spectacular at-bats of this regular season, and it already is becoming the stuff of legend in the Bay Area.
One one side of the Dodgers-Giants rivalry was Gagne, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, protecting a 3-0 lead with one out and one on in the ninth at SBC Park as he was attempting to keep his record consecutive-saves streak going.
On the other side was Barry Bonds, who earlier in the week had hit his 660th homer to tie Willie Mays for No. 3 on the all-time list and then No. 661 to take sole possession. Before this Friday night game, Bonds had been honored in a ceremony that included Mays.
Gagne jumped ahead 0-and-2, then followed that with two balls. Gagne then uncorked a 101-mph Yeager jet, low-and-in, like Mach 2, and it came in a seemingly infinitesimal fraction of a second that most people never will fully appreciate. Bonds turned on it with cat-like reflexes and splashed it a stunning 500 feet into McCovey Cove -- but 50 feet foul. SBC Park was buzzing, electrified and stupefied.
"It hit right on my bat -- that guy was throwing straight cheddar," Bonds said of the Gagne cheese. "That's the best I've ever seen him pitch -- ever. He was phenomenal."
Gagne, who held on for that save, immediately called it his favorite Major League moment. But even he found it hard to believe what the numbers said. "No chance -- maybe 97 or 98," he said of the readout. "I think they were pumping it up a bit. They wanted me to keep throwing fastballs, probably."
Be that as it may, Giants reliever Matt Herges said Gagne also hit 102 in the series. Dodgers pitching coach Jim Colburn was asked about the subject Tuesday in Los Angeles and said that, while the stadium speed readouts are entertaining to fans, "Mainly I judge on how hitters are reacting to the pitch."
Philadelphia reliever Billy Wagner has been on the disabled list lately, and he is understandably missed in late innings. He thrusts absolute thunderbolts from his left arm. Once he was clocked at 101 mph, possibly the fastest ball thrown by someone under 6 feet. He has registered 100 at least a dozen times on the new Citizens Bank Park gun, as well as on the guns used by many scouts and team employees.
"He's the hardest left-hander in the game right now, and I'm including that guy in Arizona," one scout said. Phillies starter Kevin Millwood has thrown a no-hitter without that kind of pop, and he says simply of Wagner: "He's just a freak of nature." Teammate Randy Wolf adds: "The only time I'll hit triple digits is in kilometers."
"The good Lord has blessed me with a small stature, but a good arm," Wagner said. "Everyone thinks you're at a disadvantage when you're short, but I've seen more guys over 6 feet tall throwing 88 than 98. For me, everything has to be in sync, from my legs to my trunk, hips, chest. Everything has to be smooth and flow, then I can throw at that velocity."
Like Wagner, Octavio Dotel is a former Astros reliever. Dotel was traded this season to Oakland. When asked what prompted him to trade for Dotel, Oakland general manager Billy Beane said, "He throws 12,000 miles an hour."
Dotel usually tops out at 98 mph but has registered 100 this season. He has been particularly valuable to the A's because he likes a heavy workload, and his velocity rarely dips even when he is working a third day in a row.
One of the best races in the Majors this summer is the American League West, and Dotel is a great example of what this summer heat feels like there. Three teams are battling for that division and each has a closer in this club or close to it. Francisco Cordero has been nearly automatic for the Rangers, giving him entrée into baseball's newly elite among closers, going under 95 mph only on breaking balls and topping out at 100. The Angels have the old guard of speed in Troy Percival, who recently chalked up his 300th career save and has a top reading of 98 in 2004 according to pitching coach Bud Black.
Long considered one of the Majors' hardest-throwing closers, Percival had elbow inflammation earlier in the year and is still working his way back from that. He is topping out at the 94-95 range right now, but Percival said he is confident that his fastball will reach upwards of 97 or 98 again before the year is out.
"I feel like there's a lot still left in my arm," he said. "My mechanics are as good as they have been in years, so it's just a matter of getting back to that easy velocity I used to have. I know it's in there."
Cordero has the typical battle cry of a flamethrower: "I'm going to let them try to beat me. When I come into the game, I try to get ahead of the hitter with a strike and then go from there." And good luck beating the heat in Texas in the summer, especially when the heat comes in blazes of 100 miles per hour.
Seeing is believing - isn't it?
Cubs catcher Michael Barrett wears extra padding behind his mitt because of a past broken finger. He said of Farnsworth: "He's throwing a 96-97-mile-an-hour sinker, which is the equivalent of 105, 110, in my opinion."
What Wood had to say on the subject of stadium speed readouts probably is of special interest to the legions of fans who hang on every mph. Here is the exchange between him and MLB.com's Cubs correspondent, Carrie Muskat:
Do you look at the speeds?
"The only time I've ever looked at the radar gun is on a changeup or a slider. If I throw a slider that I don't think did what was supposed to, I'll check the speed on it. More so on my changeup, because I have a tendency to throw it too hard sometimes. I throw four or five changeups a game, so I'll look up there four or five times maybe."
But not fastballs?
Did you look when you were younger?
"No. I never was a gun watcher. I kind of always knew. In the minor leagues, you'd have your teammates holding the gun and sometimes they'd come in and tell you what you're throwing. I figured that's what I always throw which is around 95.
"I can feel when I throw one and let it go. I can make a one or two mile an hour guess. But I don't really care."
Farnsworth is often clocked at 100 mph.
The right stuff keeps coming
"Smoltzie is just plain nasty," Braves catcher Johnny Estrada said. "You never know what he's going to throw. He's got that wicked splitter and then he can just gas it right by you with his heater."
But the worst news for hitters is that the hottest heaters keep on coming. While Smoltz is presumably in the latter stage of his career, the Orioles have a young 100-mph Club member in Jorge Julio, and then you have guys like Jesus Colome of Tampa Bay, Dan Kolb of Milwaukee and Oliver Perez at Pittsburgh checking in now at 98 mph.
"I knew I had to throw hard to get to the Major Leagues and stay," Colome said. "I like the power-vs.-power matchup because I say, 'I am going to throw it and if you want to hit it, you are going to have to HIT it.'"
"I get excited striking out guys," Perez said, and even some opposing players get excited watching him strike them out. Atlanta's Chipper Jones said of him: "He's the closest thing to Randy Johnson that we'll see in this game. He's legit. He's just 22 years old and still developing. He's still just a young pup. But he's already got outstanding stuff."
It is the right stuff for a hot summer day. Feel the heat.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.