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Gagne Wants to Close Deal

Having been warned about strange creatures in the water, Hawaiian tourists were stunned Thursday when they spotted one on the beach.

Baseball glove on one hand. Fastball coming out of the other hand. Goatee dripping on his shirt.

“People would walk past, staring,” Eric Gagne said. “I’d have to stop and say, ‘Yeah, it’s me.’ ”

It’s hard to imagine whether the Maui visitors were more shocked to see Gagne pitching barefoot ... or pitching, period.

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Recovering from June elbow surgery, the Dodger pitcher has spent the winter in relative seclusion, finally emerging this week on the island sands to offer an answer to every Dodger fan’s question.

Game Over says it’s Game On.

“I will be ready for the start of the season, no doubt,” he said in a phone interview late Thursday. “I feel great. I’m throwing strong. I’m doing more now than during winters when I was healthy.”

Good thing, because he will take the mound this summer in save situations not only for his Dodger team, but his Dodger career.

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The club’s most popular player is also in one of the most precarious positions.

If you didn’t think his health and impending free agency didn’t land him on the Chavez ledge, then you must agree that Danys Baez has pushed him there.

I have several guesses why Ned Colletti traded for Tampa Bay’s 41-save relief ace a couple of weeks ago, and none of them are potentially good for Gagne.

The first guess: The Dodgers just aren’t sure Gagne can return to full-time closing form, even if he is judged to be sound.

The second guess: If Gagne is throwing well again, the Dodgers want the flexibility to deal him in July to avoid losing him to free agency.

Gagne says the first scenario will never happen.

“The job is mine until I lose it, I don’t think they want to pay a setup man $10 million,” he said.

As for the second scenario, Gagne said he can only trust.

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“I want to play here, but if they don’t want me here ... well, I doubt that,” Gagne said. “I trust them that the trade was made to make the middle of the bullpen stronger, and that was it.”

The last time he spoke publicly, at the end of last season, Gagne was ripping ownership for not putting a winning team on the field.

“The Dodgers made money.... You have to give back,” he said.

He said they needed to sign a 40-homer guy.

He said they needed to sign a .310 hitter.

He said they needed to re-sign Jeff Weaver.

They didn’t answer the first request. Only Kenny Lofton fills the second request. And Weaver is gone, replaced by Brett Tomko and Jae Seo.

Yet Gagne said Thursday he loved the moves, and during the 30-minute interview, he used the word “trust” as often as “fastball.”

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“I like what they’ve done, I like it a lot, they’ve brought in some baseball players who know how to win,” he said.

After questioning the owner’s motives, he says he trusts him again.

“Frank McCourt has stepped up to the plate, big-time, with money and players, and he deserves praise,” Gagne said. “Last year he got crushed in the media. This year, you look at the players we have, what more can he do?”

After enduring an injury-plagued three months, followed by a dreaded surgery that proved to be somewhat less than a full Tommy John reconstruction, he trusts his right arm again.

“If I’m not good enough to close, I won’t close, but I know I’ll be ready,” Gagne said. “If I stink, then someone can take my spot, but I don’t think I’ll stink.”

Mostly, Gagne said that he trusts the Dodgers will be better.

“Getting guys like Bill Mueller, Rafael Furcal, Nomar Garciaparra, veterans who can play the game, that’s huge, that shows the Dodgers really care,” he said.

He said one of the biggest losses was Duaner Sanchez. “It is really, really hard to replace a guy who can eat up that many innings in middle relief,” he said.

But he said that the two guys from Tampa Bay -- Baez and Lance Carter -- can fill that role.

“They are both experienced guys, they are great pitchers, that is huge,” he said.

But, again, what if one of them replaces you?

“I never even thought of that, seriously,” he said. “When the trade was made, I thought, good, we have middle relief help. I never thought of anything else.”

Well, with Baez being a potential free agent at half the price, you never know.

For the record, Gagne said he would love to sign a long-term deal with the Dodgers whenever they are ready.

“Last year I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay, but I want to stay now. I’d love a long-term deal if they wanted to do it,” he said.

But, also for the record, the Dodgers probably won’t even consider such a thing until he shows he is healthy for an extended period of time. And even then ...

“I know, they need to see something, I have to show I can do it four or five days in a row,” he said. “You can’t rely on what-ifs.”

Not exactly a catchy phrase, but, for now, folks better get used to it, from Game Over to What If.

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Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous Plaschke columns, go to latimes.com/plaschke.


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