Sun, Sep 21, 2003 - Page 24 News List

No holding back for the Dodgers

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , LOS ANGELES

It's a different world out there now, and if Dodgers manager Jim Tracy had any doubt about it last week, he doesn't now.

You do some things differently in the stretch, in the final weeks of September with the season on the line.

Tracy, the manager who wouldn't bring in record-setting closer Eric Gagne with two outs in the eighth as the Diamondbacks rallied for a heart-stopping 5-4 victory eight days ago, tried something completely different Thursday night.

With Wilson Alvarez clinging to a 1-0 lead and bidding for his second consecutive shutout, Tracy called on Gagne to start off the eighth. There is no more messing around.

"Every day is the season right now," Tracy said.

Only an excellent relay from Alex Cora to throw out pinch-runner Craig Counsell at the plate in the eighth prevented the move from backfiring, but Gagne came through for his 52nd consecutive save this season as the Dodgers won 2-0 and closed to within 2 games of the Florida Marlins for the National League wild card.

Gagne had never pitched a two-inning save in his two-year career as a closer. Had not entered the game to start the eighth all season.

But this is not just any time in the season, and Tracy went to a stretch-run move.

"A game we absolutely had to have," he said.

With the calendar their growing enemy, and the Dodgers desperately needing to put a winning streak together to close the season, Tracy had the bullpen gates swing open to open the eighth and "Game Over" walking to the mound.

"This was a must-win game," catcher Paul Lo Duca said. "You put your best pitcher in the game. Gagne wants the save, wants the ball. That's the guy you want on the mound."

Gagne looked like a guy in unfamiliar territory in the eighth, one having trouble getting pumped up as he normally does.

"I felt great," Gagne said. "I had a lot of energy. Maybe too much energy."

Rod Barajas opened with a single, and one out later, Steve Finley lined a double along the right-field line. Counsell, running for Barajas, was waved home by third-base coach Eddie Rodriguez. Gagne's record streak of 59 overall consecutive saves was in serious jeopardy.

"There was a reason they brought him in the eighth," Rodriguez said. "We wanted to force the issue and make them make two good throws. You don't know how many hits you're going to get off him."

But Shawn Green fielded the ball cleanly off the short wall in right and threw to Cora up the line. Cora spun and threw a perfect strike to Lo Duca, who tagged out Counsell by a couple of feet.

"You couldn't have run in there and handed it to him any better," Tracy said.

Gagne pounded his hands into his side and screamed at himself, as if to both scold himself and psych up.

The Dodgers added a run in the bottom of the eighth, but Gagne appeared determined to make every Tracy decision interesting.

"People think he's invincible," Tracy said. "He's mortal -- an awfully good mortal."

Gagne got into another jam in the ninth when he walked Luis Gonzalez to start the inning and Shea Hillenbrand blooped a single to center that sent Gonzalez to third.

But on a comebacker, Gagne caught Gonzalez in a rundown. A strikeout and final groundout, and Tracy's two-inning move had worked.

"We just felt if they were going to tie or take the lead, they were going to have to do it against Gagne," Tracy said.

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