07/12/2004 5:14 PM ET
Gagne, Lo Duca come for closure
2003 performance didn't stop record-setting momentum
By Doug Miller / MLB.com
HOUSTON -- If All-Star Games really counted, as in regular-season-standings counted, Eric Gagne's spectacular save streak would have ended in the 74th Midsummer Classic in Chicago.
Gagne, the Dodgers closer known for his bushy brown chin-beard, 98 mph heater and Looney Tunes changeup, coughed up a game-winning, two-run homer in the eighth inning to Hank Blalock, giving the Junior Circuit the win.
In other words, it was a blown save. Repeat that: Blown save.
Sounds weird, doesn't it? When it comes to Gagne, a repeat All-Star this year, the words are almost difficult to pronounce, especially in his native French.
Of course, everyone knows what Gagne did after that slip-up.
He ran his Major League record to 84 consecutive successful saves until the Arizona Diamondbacks got him in a game the Dodgers eventually won, 6-5, on July 5.
He also blew the minds of just about every player in the big leagues, which was proven by a quick but telling survey of the players gathered in Houston for the 75th All-Star Game.
"It's unheard of," says Danny Graves, the Cincinnati Reds closer whose 33 saves at this year's All-Star break have him on pace to shatter Bobby Thigpen's 14-year-old record of 57 in a season.
"For me, it's a streak like Cal Ripken or (Joe) DiMaggio or a record like Pete Rose. That will never be broken."
Milwaukee closer Dan Kolb, who has 26 saves this year, disagrees with Graves -- sort of.
"If there's somebody that's going to break it, it's going to be him," Kolb says. "I mean, you can't describe how good he is. I had 18 in a row and I started feeling the pressure. I blew one, went inside the clubhouse and watched the tape of it.
"I made every pitch where I wanted to make it."
Even soft-spoken Mariano Rivera, the exalted Yankees closer with more October saves than anyone in history, gives Gagne some major props.
"It's amazing," Rivera says, "What can you say? You have to be good to do that."
And to be that good, you have to have someone good calling the pitches. Gagne has that in Dodgers catcher Paul Lo Duca, who also will be making his second consecutive All-Star appearance.
Lo Duca was behind the plate when Blalock ripped the tell-tale tater in the 2003 game and hopes to be catching with the game on the line this year in Minute Maid Park. He also was behind the plate when the streak ended at 84.
"It was pretty awesome to be part of something like that," Lo Duca said. "It should be regarded as one of the greatest streaks ever."
And last year's All-Star Game?
"That was really a case of him not having that adrenaline that he usually has," Lo Duca says. "He told me right after that he just didn't feel it. You just can't compare the intensity of a regular game and an exhibition."
Gagne says his friendship with Lo Duca and the catchers' expertise at his craft played a major role in the streak.
"Usually, when I think fastball, he thinks fastball," Gagne says. "He was huge throughout the whole thing, because he knows me better than anybody. He'll tell me if I seem nervous, and when he tells me that I don't really feel nervous anymore."
Hitters do, though.
In a tight game in the ninth inning, the consensus among All-Stars is that hardly anybody is tougher to face.
"Getting up there against him, you're just trying to hit something hard and hopefully he doesn't pound all 12 of his pitches on you," Marlins All-Star third baseman Mike Lowell says with a shake of the head and a smile.
Maybe the best way to describe Gagne's historic achievement is, well, not to describe it at all, which was the strategy of choice for All-Star Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols.
"I don't need to say anything about him," Pujols says.
"That number says everything."
|Paul Lo Duca and Eric Gagne celebrate the closer's first save after his streak ended. (Jon SooHoo/Dodgers)
Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.