This story was assigned a week before it would be used. How presumptuous. Was there no chance that Eric Gagne might blow a save in those seven days? Blown saves happen every night across the major leagues, they happen to the A's and the Indians all the time. Not Gagne. Never Gagne.
Starting Aug. 28, 2002, he had converted 83 consecutive save opportunities, 29 more than the previous record of 54 by Tom Gordon, and doubling the streak of any other reliever since the save rule became official in 1969. Gagne has accomplished this remarkable feat for a winning team, and with a hits-to-innings-pitched ratio that is Danny Almontean, a walk-to-strikeout ratio that is Koufaxian and a reliability that can only be described as Gagnenian.
So, how did his streak (which ended Monday night when Gagne gave up two runs to Arizona in the ninth inning of Los Angeles' eventual 6-5 win) compare to other great streaks in baseball history; those of Joe DiMaggio, Cal Ripken and Orel Hershiser? They are difficult comparisons given the differences in the streaks, or as the great Steve Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau put it, "it's like determining in which order you would hit Ruth, Williams and Barry Bonds in a mythical All-Star Game against Mars." The four streaks are incomparable and perhaps unbreakable.
Still, Gagne's streak is no match for Joe DiMaggio's hitting safely in 56 consecutive games in 1941, the streak that got us all thinking about streaks. That streak has a track record; the second-longest in history -- 45 games -- belongs to Wee Willie Keeler in 1896-97. Most of us will never see 56 in a row in our lifetime. The odds were astronomical at the time, and equally so now. One bad game and you're done. When Pete Rose hit in 44 straight in 1978, he was two weeks from breaking it. Some hitters have never gone two weeks with a hit in every game. Rose was under enormous media pressure during the streak. Imagine that pressure 26 years later?
Gagne can have a bad game and continue his streak. He can enter a game with a three-run lead, give up three hits and two runs, and still get a save. DiMaggio had to get a hit every game. Gagne can enter a game in a non-save situation, give up 10 runs (this would never happen) and the streak would still live. Plus, with all due respect, it's not as if the country is riveted to every extension of the streak. When Gagne reached 55 to set the record, it went largely unnoticed across America. If someone hits in 57 games in a row, there will be a parade.
Gagne's streak doesn't have the same track record; it can only be compared to relievers of the last 35 years. With the way the save has been bastardized and gerrymandered by managers who rarely bring a closer in with a man on base, let alone the bases loaded in the eighth, Gagne's streak more fairly should be compared to those from the last 15 years when the era of the protected closer began, led by Tony LaRussa and Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley. Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter, Goose Gossage pitched far more innings, and entered games in more difficult spots, than closers today. In the 1978 playoff game against Boston, Gossage entered with one out in the seventh, and got the last eight outs.
Gagne's streak cannot match Cal Ripken's streak of 2,632 consecutive games played, although it is, in every way, an apples vs. oranges debate. Still, Ripken went from May 1982 until September 1998 without missing a game. A closer misses games all the time. When he works four in a row, which durable closers such as Gagne have been known to do, he is considered a hero. Ripken started every one of those games at shortstop or third base, none at DH. There currently are 150 players on the DL. This might be the most unbreakable streak of all.
Gagne's streak is not the greatest streak in Dodger history. In 1988, Orel Hershiser threw a major-league record 59 consecutive scoreless innings, a feat that still doesn't receive its proper due. That's six shutouts in a row, then add four more innings. The last pitcher to throw six shutouts in a season was Tim Belcher in 1989. Many teams don't throw six shutouts in a season. Even though Don Drysdale and Bob Gibson have streaks that nearly match Hershiser's, to not have a bad inning in nearly seven games is incredible.
What Gagne has done is also incredible, there is no way to discredit him, but discrediting the save rule can be easily done. "To be perfectly frank, when you have a three-run lead in the ninth, with no one on base, 98 percent of the time, you're going to close the game regardless of who you put out there,'' says A's general manager Billy Beane. "And with a closer, it's 99 percent of the time.'' With Gagne, it's 100 percent. Still, during his streak, Gagne has entered a game with a runner at third base five times (that includes, first and third, bases loaded, etc.), and each time, he had a lead of four or more runs, a large margin for error. In only 17 of his 83 straight saves has he entered a game with a runner on base.
The Elias Sports Bureau has attempted to bring some dignity back to the save rule by determining a quality save, which requires one or the both of the following a) the tying run must be in scoring position when the reliever enters, or b) pitching at least one inning with a one-run lead. Gagne has 38 quality saves during his streak, nearly twice as many as anyone.
One factor separates Gagne's streak from most others: Gagne's saves guarantee a victory, which is why the game is played. DiMaggio's hits didn't guarantee victory, nor did Ripken playing every day and even Hershiser didn't win every start during his streak (one game was decided in extra innings after he was removed). Gagne's streak is so much longer than any reliever's, and is so tied to winning, that it deserves tremendous credit and our constant attention. But it is not the greatest, or the most impressive, streak in baseball history.