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With Saito, Team Can Heave a Sigh of Relief

Times Staff Writer

No flashing outfield signs. No “Welcome to the Jungle.” Takashi Saito’s ninth-inning entrance lacked the pageantry of Eric Gagne’s. Instead, when the bullpen doors opened in the top of the ninth inning Sunday, Saito put his head down and jogged to the mound.

A pepped-up “Price Is Right” theme song played on the stadium speakers.

Without Gagne, who has been sidelined for nearly the entire season because of elbow and back injuries, save situations at Dodger Stadium have lacked the flair they once had. But since Saito assumed the closer’s role in mid-May, the Dodgers have retained the substance.

Saito pitched a 1-2-3 ninth inning Sunday for his eighth save, and the Dodgers beat the San Francisco Giants, 3-1. Saito is eight for eight in save opportunities and has a 2.14 earned-run average.

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Saito, 36, is considered a rookie, though he spent 14 seasons with the Yokohama Baystars of the Japanese Central League. When the Dodgers purchased his contract during the off-season, there was little indication he’d turn into their closer. Although Saito showed promise during spring training, he was assigned to triple-A Las Vegas to start the season. Besides, Gagne was returning from elbow surgery, and Danys Baez had been acquired in January to be his setup man.

But when Gagne went on the disabled list in early April because of another elbow surgery, Saito was called up the next day. After Baez blew four saves in mid-May, Saito came to the rescue.

“When I look back to spring training, I saw no chance to go up to the major leagues,” Saito said through an interpreter. “So being here makes me very happy.”

Saito entered Sunday’s game with a two-run lead, facing the bottom of the order. Giants first baseman Mark Sweeney flied to left. Eliezer Alfonzo struck out looking on a loopy breaking ball. Steve Finley flied to right to end the game, concluding Saito’s eight-pitch outing. Game over.

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“He’s fun to watch,” reliever Jonathan Broxton said. “He keeps batters off balance. He keeps them very honest.”

It’s partly because of his delivery, and the way he leans back, then forward like a rickety rocking chair. Saito attacks hitters, Broxton said, and isn’t afraid of anyone. He pitches quickly, and efficiently, as evidenced by his stint Sunday, which was over in minutes.

“The innings happen quickly,” Dodgers Manager Grady Little said. “He challenges the hitters to put it in play or strikes them out. We feel confident every time he goes on the mound.”

Soon after the victory, the Dodgers retreated to the clubhouse, hoping to make a quick getaway before the All-Star break. Saito, who speaks minimal English, sat at his locker, surrounded by a contingent of Japanese media. Starting pitcher Aaron Sele, on his way out of the clubhouse, noticed the scene. Sele stopped in his tracks, got Saito’s attention, then reached out his hand and gave his closer a thumbs up.

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“If I do well, people tell me, ‘Good job.’ ” Saito said. “Maybe having people say that is normal, but for me that is special.”


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