More from Morgan: New chapter in Clemens-Piazza saga
In a column last month, I discussed the relevance of Eric Gagne's record streak for consecutive saves, which was stopped at 84 last week, and the difficulty of maintaining the streak for that long.
I want to reiterate that I don't think any closer other than Gagne could have accomplished such a streak -- 84 consecutive saves is incredible, and Gagne's stuff is overwhelming.
The new record by the Los Angeles Dodgers' closer is 30 more than the previous mark.
Before last Monday's game with the Arizona Diamondbacks -- which the Dodgers won 6-5 in 10 innings -- Gagne hadn't blown a save since Aug. 26, 2002. Of course, the streak didn't include his blown save in last year's All-Star Game. He also lost three games last year (by my count) that he entered with the game tied.
Besides his consecutive-saves record, Gagne shares the National League record for saves in a season (55). Last year, Gagne won the Cy Young award and tied the NL saves mark set by Atlanta Braves closer John Smoltz in 2002. Bobby Thigpen holds the AL and MLB single-season saves record (57 saves in 1990).
As I've said before, it's easier for closers today to amass saves compared to relievers of the past, because today's closers typically pitch one inning and can record a save by getting those three outs with a three-run lead. When I played, the closer's role wasn't so well-defined, and most relievers entered the game in the seventh inning and then closed it out (thus bypassing the setup man that's used today).
When a closer gets a save for pitching one inning with a three-run lead, I call it a "soft save." To me, a "hard save" comes with a one-run lead in the ninth.
I'm in favor of changing the save rule so a save is awarded only for two-run leads in the ninth inning. The rule states that, to earn a save, a reliever must enter the game with the potential tying run in the on-deck circle -- the only exception is when a reliever starts the ninth inning. I'm not sure why there's a different standard for the ninth, but there shouldn't be.
An element of luck is involved any time a streak occurs, and Gagne needed some luck along the way to keep his streak going. If a closer's teammates make errors behind him, he can blow a save even when it isn't his fault. The Dodgers have played great defense to support Gagne the past two years. But finally, on Monday vs. Arizona, someone couldn't make a play in the ninth and Gagne blew a save. Olmedo Saenz was playing first base (not his normal position), and a ball got past him for a hit that a regular first baseman might have been better positioned for.
Even with Joe DiMaggio's record 56-game hitting streak in 1941, as great a hitter as he was, he needed some luck along the way to continue it.
Mentioning DiMaggio raises a question: What is baseball's most impressive streak? The conventional wisdom says the answer is simple -- it's his hitting streak. The number 56 is entrenched in baseball history.
But if there's anything more difficult than DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, it's Orel Hershiser's streak of 59 consecutive scoreless innings in 1988. Like Gagne, Hershiser set his mark with the Dodgers. Hershiser broke the record of another former Dodger great, Don Drysdale, who threw 58-1/3 scoreless innings in 1968.
The scoreless-innings streak is tough to match because, again, you've got to have a combination of skill and luck. An error and an extra-base hit in the gap, and your scoreless-innings streak is over. Or one swing of the bat with the bases empty and it's over. So I give lots of credence to Hershiser's streak.
With a hitting streak, you get four at-bats per game. If you hit the ball well three times, one probably will be a base hit. But with the scoreless innings streak, they get nine shots at you per game. There are more variables in the scoreless-innings streak than in the hitting streak.
Now that Gagne's streak has ended, I think it might actually help L.A. because manager Jim Tracy has the liberty to use his closer in different ways now. The streak forced Tracy to use Gagne only for save situations. Now Tracy can use Gagne more often, such as in tie ballgames, which is a plus for the Dodgers because he's their best pitcher.
Congratulations to Gagne for such a tremendous streak!
An analyst for ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan won back-to-back MVP awards with the Reds in 1975 and '76 (the Reds won the World Series both years). He contributes a weekly column to ESPN.com.