Close the Book: Gagne Out Till ‘06

Times Staff Writer

Dodger closer Eric Gagne will undergo Tommy John elbow surgery Friday for the second time in his career, shelving not only an integral part of the struggling team but also its most recognizable marketing icon.

Team physicians Frank Jobe and Ralph Gambardella will replace the ulnar collateral ligament in the right-hander’s elbow with one from another part of his body -- probably his forearm -- in a procedure named after the first pitcher whose career was resurrected through the surgery, developed by Jobe in 1974.

Gagne will be sidelined for about a year. Recovery is a long, arduous process, and there is no guarantee he will return to the form that saw him rack up 152 saves from 2002 through 2004 and eight more this season.


However, the surgery has become so common that approximately one of every nine major league pitchers has had it done, including hard-throwing John Smoltz, Mariano Rivera and Kerry Wood.

Gagne, 29, says he expects to be pitching in 11 months.

“I’m just anxious to come back,” he said. “I’ll be back by May, I think. Maybe I’ll be stronger.”

He knows all about the procedure. Gagne is one of only a select group to have had it done a second time, joining former teammate Darren Dreifort and Steve Ontiveros, who pitched for several teams from 1985 to 2000.

“It’s not a lot different than the first surgery,” General Manager Paul DePodesta said. “It’s not a complicated procedure. It’s straightforward.”

Gagne had the surgery in 1997 after his first minor league season and developed a fastball clocked at 98 mph during his brilliant run as Dodger closer.

So dominant was Gagne that the Dodgers built the hugely popular “Game Over” promotion around his appearances. “Welcome to the Jungle” blares over the loudspeakers and images of the goggled Gagne are displayed on the video screen and ribbon board, keeping fans riveted until the last out is recorded.

He was signed to a two-year, $19-million deal during the off-season with a team option for $12.5 million in 2007. The Dodgers have insurance on the contract that could enable them to recoup about half of it.

Far more difficult to replace will be his dominance on the field and leadership in the clubhouse. Gagne had a record streak of 84 consecutive saves stopped in July and had saved 18 in a row when he felt a burning sensation in his elbow during his last appearance June 12 against the Minnesota Twins.

He missed much of spring training because of a sprained left knee and sprained the elbow in his last spring appearance in part because he was compensating for the knee injury. When he returned from the disabled list May 14, his velocity had dropped significantly.

DePodesta acknowledged that Gagne might have come back too soon from the knee injury, but said there was little else that could have prevented the latest episode.

“There was nothing we could have done differently,” he said. “Pitchers have injuries.”

Said Gagne: “I try to prepare for the worst, and when I walked into the doctor’s office [Tuesday], mentally I was ready for anything. I was ready for them to say, ‘Tommy John surgery.’ ”

Jobe was unavailable for comment. However, in 2001 he was cautious in predicting the success of Dreifort’s second surgery.

“I don’t think, in the several thousand of them that we’ve done, there’s been more than a couple that we had to redo, and I can’t think of one who’s come back,” Jobe said then. “There’s no real track record for a second time.”

Manager Jim Tracy choked up talking about the pitcher’s effect on the Dodgers.

“It’s tough, it’s hard,” he said. “He puts the team first and that’s what he’s been about since the day he became our closer.”

The Dodgers hope Gagne spends as much time as possible with the team during his rehabilitation.

“He means so much to the club,” DePodesta said. “Guys feed off him. The entire team would benefit.”

Rookie Yhency Brazoban will become the closer. He got a taste of the role at the beginning of the season when Gagne went on the disabled list.

Brazoban has 11 saves in 14 opportunities, posting a 2-2 record and a 4.66 earned-run average. Duaner Sanchez, who has a 3.92 ERA in 36 appearances, will take over Brazoban’s role as eighth-inning setup reliever.

“You have to respect Eric Gagne and try to pick him up and pick the team up,” Sanchez said. “It won’t be easy, but we have to forget about it and do the job.”

The Dodgers won’t rush out and trade for another reliever, DePodesta said. First they would promote minor leaguers Steve Schmoll and Franquelis Osoria, who pitched well in brief call-ups.

Top double-A prospects Jonathan Broxton and Justin Orenduff could be considered later in the season

“We don’t think we can ride [Brazoban and Sanchez] for 95 games,” DePodesta said. “We have guys in-house.”

Gagne said he would be in the clubhouse even if he can’t burst out of the bullpen.

“I want to be there for the young guys, for everyone, and for myself,” he said. “I need to be around baseball. I’d go crazy without it.”



Coming back

Notable pitchers who have had Tommy John surgery in the last few years:

* Rod Beck, no longer in majors (out 21 months) -- Had surgery in October 2001 and returned in June 2003. Numbers after return: 3-4, 3.64 ERA, 20 saves.

* A.J. Burnett, Florida (out 15 months) -- Had surgery in April 2003 and was out until June 2004. Numbers since return: 11-10, 3.54 ERA.

* Paul Byrd, Angels (out 11 months) -- Had surgery while with Atlanta in July 2003 and was out until June 2004. Numbers since return: 15-12, 3.91 ERA.

* Darren Dreifort, Dodgers (out 16 months first time, out 21 months second time) -- Had first Tommy John surgery in March 1995 and was out until July 1996. Had second Tommy John surgery in July 2001 and was out until April 2003. Pitched until August 2004 and has been out since then because of torn knee ligaments. Numbers since return from second operation: 5-8, 4.22 ERA.

* Adam Eaton, San Diego (out 15 months) -- Had surgery in July 2001 and was out until September 2002. Numbers since return: 30-29, 4.27 ERA.

* Jon Lieber, Philadelphia (out 23 months) -- Had surgery when with Chicago Cubs in August 2002, was signed by New York Yankees before 2003 season, and was out until June 2004. Numbers since return: 22-14, 4.44 ERA.

* Kerry Ligtenberg, Arizona (out 14 months) -- Had surgery while with Atlanta in March 1999 and was out until April 2000. Was Atlanta’s closer when injured, lost closer’s job after return. Numbers since return: 13-18, 4.13 ERA, 19 saves.

* Matt Morris, St. Louis (out 15 months) -- Had surgery in April 1999 and was out until June 2000. Numbers since return: 76-38, 3.68 ERA.

* John Smoltz, Atlanta (out 17 months) -- Had surgery in March 2000 and was out until July 2001. Was converted from a starter to a closer when he came back. Returned to starting this season. Numbers since return: 12-13, 3.10 ERA, 154 saves.

* Kerry Wood, Chicago Cubs (out 15 months) -- Had surgery in March 1999 and was out until May 2000. Numbers since return: 55-45, 3.75 ERA.

Graphics Reporting by Houston Mitchell

Los Angeles Times