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Inside Baseball


Monsieur Sauveur
The Dodgers have found a winning edge in French Canadian closer
Eric Gagne

Before this season Dodgers righthander Eric Gagne was a winning
pitcher in name only--his surname is a form of the French verb
gagner, to win. Though he seemed nominally destined for success
on the mound, the Montreal native had few W's when he reported
to spring training. Gagne spent the last three seasons yo-yoing
between the Los Angeles rotation and the minors, putting
together an 11-14 record with a 4.61 ERA in 48 big league starts
and 10 relief appearances, hardly the kind of stats expected of
a young power pitcher coveted by other teams in trade talks with
the Dodgers.

Gagne hasn't added any more victories to his record this
season--he was 0-0 through Sunday--but he has had a hand in a
majority of the Dodgers' wins. In a little more than two months
the 26-year-old converted starter has become one of the National
League's most dominating closers. Gagne led the majors with 21
saves and had a 1.39 ERA. He'd blown just one save opportunity,
and opponents were hitting a meager .150 against him.

Forget Gagne--Eric Sauveur (French for saver) might be more
appropriate this season. "When I came to spring training, I
didn't have a job, and I didn't know if I'd get traded," says
Gagne, whose first language is French and who didn't speak
English fluently until after he signed with the Dodgers as an
undrafted free agent in 1995. "I just wanted to do something so
I could stay on the team."

After closer Jeff Shaw retired, the Dodgers spent the off-season
trying to trade for a replacement. They made unsuccessful runs
at the Angels' Troy Percival and the Blue Jays' Billy Koch, whom
Toronto instead traded to the A's. Faced with a surplus of
starters in spring training, manager Jim Tracy shifted Gagne to
the bullpen and announced that Gagne and righthanders Giovanni
Carrara and Paul Quantrill would form a committee of closers.

It was a logical move, because last season Gagne's fastball was
regularly clocked at 94 mph; now he's reaching 97. He credits
that jump to eight pounds of muscle he added through winter
workouts in Montreal with some friends who are hockey players,
and to the new high-octane approach he brings to the bullpen.

He had struck out 44 hitters and walked four in 32 1/3 innings,
and it's not only his fastball that makes him effective. His key
pitch right now is a changeup that dives toward the dirt as it
nears the plate. That sinking action and the speed (87 mph) with
which he throws it make the pitch devastating. "Hitters might
see a splitter or a slider that hard, but they never see a
straight change that hard," says catcher Paul Lo Duca. Adding to
Gagne's intimidating presence is his appearance: goggle-thick
glasses and a half-goatee that Lo Duca calls a "Chia chin."

It didn't take long for Tracy to disband his committee of
closers. On April 11 against the Giants at Pac Bell Park, Gagne
entered the game in the ninth inning with the Dodgers leading by
a run. He quickly got himself into a jam, putting runners on
first and third with one out. Tracy visited the mound and told
Gagne, "I should bring in [lefthander Jesse] Orosco, but I'm
not. It's your game."

Gagne struck out the next batter and got the final out on a fly
to center. The Dodgers had a new closer. "[Tracy] showed a lot
of confidence in me," Gagne says. "When he walked off that
mound, that was the turning point of my career."

Streaking Marlin Luis Castillo
King of the NL Leadoff Hitters

When he has played well--whether it's on the field or in a card
game--Marlins second baseman Luis Castillo likes to strut around
the clubhouse and call himself the King. He's had several
self-coronations lately. Castillo had a 25-game hitting streak
through Sunday, the longest in the majors this season, and he
has quietly developed into the National League's most dangerous
leadoff hitter. He led the league with 21 stolen bases, and his
.328 average ranked seventh.

Castillo, a 26-year-old switch-hitter from San Pedro de Macoris,
in the Dominican Republic, appeared to be a rising star two
years ago, when he hit .334 and stole a major-league-high 62
bases. He slipped badly last season, however, batting .263 with
33 steals. The King's problem, believe it or not, was
confidence--Castillo would sink into a funk with every minor
miscue or slump. "I don't think he was cognizant of how good he
was," says former Marlins manager John Boles, who's now a senior
adviser to baseball operations for the Dodgers.

In his fourth full season Castillo's regal bearing in the
clubhouse (he's still King of the card games) is finally backed
by self-assuredness on the field. With his blazing speed as a
catalyst--Castillo led the National League with 23 infield
hits--Florida had the fifth-highest scoring offense in the
league (4.7 runs per game) at week's end. "We're riding the
wave," said leftfielder Kevin Millar. "With confidence, Luis
turns into Godzilla."

Bonds at Yankee Stadium
A Titanic Shot--Then a Letdown

At a January awards dinner in New York City, Barry Bonds stood
on the dais and told Yankees manager Joe Torre how much he was
looking forward to facing the Yankees and Roger Clemens in their
first interleague meeting. "Joe," Bonds said to Torre, "make
sure he's pitching in that series."

Bonds, who set foot in the House that Ruth Built for the first
time last Friday, got his wish on Sunday afternoon, but like
many prizefights the showdown didn't live up to the hype.
Clemens walked Bonds three times, twice intentionally. Bonds
also drew an intentional pass from reliever Steve Karsay with a
runner on first and two out in the ninth. (The crowd booed after
every walk.) In the third inning, however, Clemens did follow
through on a promise he had made earlier in the week to
"introduce myself real quick" to Bonds: He plunked the slugger
on the elbow guard he wears on his right arm.

The Clemens-Bonds matchup may have been anticlimactic, but three
thrilling games were played before packed houses. Before the
series opener, a 2-1 win for New York on Friday night, Bonds
toured Monument Park behind the outfield fence, and then he went
2 for 3 against righthander Mike Mussina. But the highlight of
the weekend came the next day, when Bonds launched a majestic
385-foot three-run homer--the 588th of his career--that landed
16 rows up in the upper deck in rightfield to help the Giants
win 4-3. "I think anybody would feel good about that," he said
after the game. "The fans wanted to see what I did in the first
inning. After that, they wanted me out every time."

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN CORDES/ICON SPORTS MEDIA In his first season as a reliever Gagne was leading the majors with 21 saves through Sunday.

COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON The speedy Castillo is igniting the Marlins' offense now that his confidence is back.

Interleague Imbalance

Interleague play has its moments--Curt Schilling outdueling
Pedro Martinez at Fenway Park last Saturday, the White Sox
visiting Wrigley this weekend--but it also threatens to wreak
havoc on the playoff races when teams vying for a wild-card spot
play radically different schedules. "If you don't play the same
people, how do you know who's really the best team?" asks Giants
manager Dusty Baker. "It's not fair to everybody."

To illustrate Baker's point, here's how the interleague calendar
will affect the teams who at week's end were National League
division leaders or were within six games of the wild card. (With
a few exceptions, the NL West plays the AL East, the NL Central
plays the AL West, and the NL East plays the AL Central.)


Diamondbacks .505 Play Red Sox, Yankees and Indians;
don't get a shot at woeful Devil Rays
Dodgers .498 Avoid Yankees; have two series with
natural rival Angels instead
Giants .477 Don't have to play Red Sox but get two
series against vaunted A's rotation
Reds .531 Skip rival Indians to play full AL West
schedule; Junior returns to Safeco
Cardinals .538 Face Mariners and Angels, but
catch a break against hapless Royals
Braves .494 Chance to slip in standings with two
series against red-hot Red Sox
Mets .518 Play two intense series against Yankees;
miss chance to relax against Tigers
Expos .431 Six games against weak Blue Jays, none
against an AL team with winning record
Marlins .435 Luck of the draw: play Devil Rays,
Royals and Tigers 12 times total