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Melvin: No plans to replace Gagne as Brewers’ closer

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McClatchy-Tribune
May 6, 2008
— Though frustrated fans might not understand the thinking, Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said Monday that there were no plans to remove Eric Gagne as the team’s closer.

Gagne blew his major league-high fifth save opportunity of the season Sunday in Houston, allowing two ninth-inning runs on two hits and three walks—including one with the bases loaded that forced in the tying run—in a game the Brewers lost, 8-6, in 12 innings.


Melvin was in Brevard County, Fla., watching the organization’s Class A affiliate and did not see Gagne’s latest meltdown but was aware of what transpired.


Asked whether there was any talk of removing Gagne as closer, Melvin said, “We haven’t had a conversation on him at all today.”


Gagne is among the National League leaders with nine saves but has blown three of his last six chances. He turned in five consecutive scoreless outings before Sunday but his overall numbers are alarming.


Beyond his blown save total and 6.14 earned run average, Gagne has allowed 15 hits and 10 walks in 14 2/3 innings. His 1.7 WHIP (walks and hits per inning) is very high, as is the .382 batting average by opponents.


Of all those numbers, Melvin said the walk total was most puzzling.


“His walks are high,” Melvin said. “That’s uncharacteristic of him. Only one ball left the infield (Sunday) but the walks hurt him.”


The strike zone of home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi was tight in the ninth inning in Houston but Gagne has had command problems throughout the season. Of the 273 pitches he has thrown, only 171 (62.6 percent) have been for strikes.


Gagne threw a whopping 35 pitches in the ninth inning Sunday, only 18 of which were strikes. A closer generally has little margin for error, and walking hitters only makes his job more difficult.


So, what would it take to put Gagne’s role as closer in jeopardy?


“There’s no magic number (of blown saves),” Melvin said. “If they are consecutive, that’s when you get worried.


“You stay with a closer as long as you can. If a hitter slumps for six weeks, you stay with him. Closers go in slumps, too. You give him the benefit of the doubt for now.”


Gagne’s performance has more closely resembled his awful two-month stint with Boston at the end of last season. In 20 appearances with the Red Sox, he compiled a 6.75 ERA with 26 hits and nine walks in 18 2/3 innings.


Gagne pitched much better at the start of last year in Texas (2.16 ERA, 16 saves in 34 outings) and the Brewers attributed his struggles in Boston to an unfamiliar set-up role in front of closer Jonathan Papelbon. But he has had trouble pitching clean innings for the Brewers, doing so just four times in 16 appearances and none in the last eight.


To understand how far off his game Gagne is, consider that he converted 177 saves in 187 chances before this season, an amazing 94.7 percent success rate. This season, his success rate is 64 percent (9 for 14).


Should Gagne continue to fail in 36 percent of his opportunities, Melvin knows he will be held accountable. He gave Gagne a one-year, $10 million free-agent deal over the winter, just a few days before Gagne was cited in the Mitchell Report as allegedly receiving shipments of human growth hormone while pitching for Los Angeles in 2004.


Gagne, 32, missed most of the 2005 and 2006 seasons with elbow and back injuries, which obviously took a toll physically. But message boards already are full of accusations that he can’t perform at a high level without using performance-enhancing substances.


Gagne once threw his fastball in the high-90-mph range but has been topping out this year at 93-94 mph. His primary issue, however, has been the inability to throw his bread-and-butter pitch, a changeup, consistently for strikes.


Other closers, such as Chicago’s Kerry Wood, St. Louis’ Jason Isringhausen and Colorado’s Manny Corpas, have struggled at times this season. But many, such as Minnesota’s Joe Nathan (11 for 11), click off saves with regularity.


Francisco Cordero converted 86 percent (44 of 51) of his save chances for the Brewers last season before taking a four-year, $46 million free agent deal with Cincinnati, spurning a $42 million offer from Melvin. Cordero is a perfect 4 for 4 for the Reds but mostly sits and watches losses because they can’t get to him with a lead.


“There’s always going to be talk when you lose games in the ninth inning,” Melvin said. “If we would have scored some runs after the fourth inning (Sunday) we wouldn’t have needed Gagne out there.


“It’s a tough job, one of the toughest jobs in the game. Houston ran Brad Lidge out of town and he hasn’t given up an (earned) run in Philadelphia (7 for 7 in save opportunities). That’s why these guys bounce around a lot.”


Should Gagne continue to stumble, the Brewers have other alternatives in the bullpen, such as Salomon Torres, who saved 12 games for Pittsburgh in both 2006 and 2007. But Melvin gave no indication that Gagne is on a short leash.


“You take it a series at a time,” Melvin said. “His stuff is still there. If (blown saves) are consecutive over a short period of time, that’s when you worry about it.


“The good news is we’re getting a lot of save opportunities.”


Now, it’s up to Gagne to start converting more of them.



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