Game over? Not quite.
As Boston's lead in the AL East shrinks by the day -- it's down to four games over the rival Yankees heading into Monday's games -- the harsh glare of Red Sox Nation has focused in on Eric Gagne, the formerly indomitable closer for the Dodgers who resurrected his career with the Rangers this season.
The key phrase there being "with the Rangers." Let's all be honest now: How many Rangers games have any of you watched this year and how often had you seen the 2007 version of Gagne take the mound prior to his debut with the Red Sox on Aug. 2?
If you are still waiting to see the "Game Over" Gagne, vintage 2002-04, you can stop now. It's not happening. What must have been lost in the excitement of the Red Sox's trade-deadline coup is the fact that all we really had to go on with Gagne and his comeback from two years of injuries were the 33 1/3 good innings he had just given Texas.
Now that he's under the spotlight with Boston and made five -- mostly regrettable -- appearances, we can see him for what he is: a pitcher with very good stuff who has to hit his spots to be successful. In particular, he has to hit his spots with his fastball, which now hovers in the low-to-mid 90s instead of the 99-100-plus stratosphere from his days in Los Angeles.
After reviewing his five Red Sox appearances (thanks to MLB.tv), here are prime examples of Gagne getting hurt by catching too much of the plate with his fastball:
• Aug. 4, at Seattle: With Ben Broussard on second base after a single and a stolen base, Gagne grooved a 94 mph fastball to catcher Kenji Johjima. Result: RBI single off the left-field wall. On his very next pitch, Gagne threw another 93 mph fastball down the middle to Jose Lopez. Result: Double to left. With runners on second and third, Gagne threw a quality fastball on the outside corner to Yuniesky Betancourt to induce a groundout and end the inning.
• Aug. 10, at Baltimore: Brought in to protect a 5-1 lead in the eighth, Gagne imploded. Corey Patterson led off with a double off a 93 mph down the middle. Nick Markakis then lined an 83 mph change-up to right field, scoring Patterson. Miguel Tejada walked. After a groundout by Kevin Millar for the first out of the inning, Aubrey Huff ripped a 93 mph fastball to right field for a single that J.D. Drew misplayed into a double. Two more runs in, Gagne heads for the showers and the Sox eventually lose 6-5.
• Aug. 12, at Baltimore: Boston's up 3-1 with Tejada at the plate. Gagne threw seven straight fastballs, the last of which left the yard. Velocity wasn't the problem; the Baltimore TV feed had it clocked at 96 mph. It was location: right down Broadway. (Pitch selection may have been faulty too -- why not go with an off-speed pitch to finish him off?)
Gagne has at times shown good command of his fastball. For example, on Aug. 8 against the Angels, he escaped a two-on, one-out jam by striking out Chone Figgins on a well-placed high fastball and getting Orlando Cabrera to pop up on a high-and-tight 93 mph heater.
The point here isn't to make too much out of four innings worth of pitching, which is all he's done so far in Boston. It's to show that Gagne no longer has the luxury of missing his spots, as he once did when he could hit triple-digits on the radar gun. He has to stay on the corners and lure hitters into swinging at the high cheese if he wants to be successful. In other words, he's just like any other pitcher: human.
The good news for Red Sox fans is that Gagne's problems are correctible. Look at Josh Beckett's transition from the thrower who tried to muscle his pitches past everybody last year (and gave up a career-high 36 home runs in the process) to the technician we see this year, pounding the corners at will. The question is, How long will it take Gagne to work out of this slump, and will it be too late to hold off the Yankees by the time he does?