Gagne, Smoltz in tight battle for NL Cy Young

Sure, it's been 11 years since one received the ultimate recognition in their line of work. But relievers are pitchers, too.

There's no reason they shouldn't receive serious consideration when it's time to fill out a Cy Young Award ballot. In fact, as teams round the last quarter pole and head for home, the two best Cy Young candidates in the National League do almost all of their work in the ninth inning.

If the vote was taken today, the proper question would be which closer deserves it more: John Smoltz, the foundation of a great team in Atlanta, or Los Angeles' Eric Gagne, who just might be having the best year a reliever ever had, Dennis Eckersley's 1992 season included.

The political reality, however, raises a secondary question: Given the bias toward starting pitchers, can a reliever win the Cy Young Award when there are two strong candidates?

It's hard to differentiate between Gagne, who is having a superior season on a lesser team, and Smoltz, who is having an almost equally tremendous season for the best team in the league and merits support for his leadership skills and previous success as a starter (including a Cy Young in 1996).

Their splitting the vote might open the door for the season's best starting pitcher, with those candidates including the Braves' Russ Ortiz, the Dodgers' Kevin Brown and San Francisco's Jason Schmidt. But this year, no starting pitcher deserves to be ranked ahead of either of the NL's top two relievers.

In voting that began in 1956, the Baseball Writers Association of America has handed out 94 Cy Young awards. Seven of those have gone to relievers. That's one every seven years between the two leagues and relievers currently find themselves in a drought.

None of their kind have won since Eckersley in 1992, when he allowed only four more hits than his combined total of wins (seven) and saves (51). Only twice in the last decade have relievers finished even second: Jose Mesa in '95 and Trevor Hoffman in '98.

But that should change if Gagne and Smoltz avoid September meltdowns. If they both hold up, we should have a repeat of the greatest day ever for relievers -- that day in 1984 when Willie Hernandez won the AL Cy Young by a margin of 17 votes over Kansas City closer Dan Quisenberry. Mike Boddicker, who led the league with 20 wins and a 2.79 ERA, somehow finished fourth (Bert Blyleven was third).

With no dominating starter in the picture, another 1-2 finish for closers looms on the horizon.

For the moment, I'd take Gagne over Smoltz. That is very hard for me to do because Smoltz just might be my favorite big-leaguer.

If judged by a combination of production and professionalism, there's nobody better than Smoltz. He spent the majority of his career comfortably nestled in the shadow of Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, but he's always been the guy Braves manager Bobby Cox most wanted on the mound in October. Smoltz's Game 7 performance in 1991 was an all-time masterpiece.

When his elbow finally gave out in 2000, after more than 2,400 innings as a starter, Smoltz went to the pits for a major overhaul (Tommy John surgery). He returned more determined than ever a year later, but had trouble staying on the mound as a starter. To his everlasting credit, he was open-minded about a move to the bullpen, which had collapsed around John Rocker.

Smoltz pitched well out of the bullpen for the Braves in the 2001 playoffs and has thrived in the new role the last two seasons. With Glavine and Millwood gone and Maddux struggling in April, he inspired confidence for a pitching staff in turmoil early this year. He was on track to shatter Bobby Thigpen's save record before running into a shortage of save situations in August.

He got his 42nd save on Aug. 2, in the Braves' 110th game, putting him on pace to set a major-league record with 62. But then he pitched only twice in 19 days as Atlanta went 8-9, with its average margin of victory during that stretch a robust 5.4. Not many save situations under those circumstances.

"If we win, this role is powerful," Smoltz said. "If we don't win, this role sucks."

For a closer, that's the reality. Coming from Smoltz, it wasn't a complaint.

Smoltz understands that a minimal workload this late in the season could come in handy in October, when he'd love to get another 11 saves.

"Right now I'm approaching it as, 'my job is to pitch the ninth inning (in save opportunities),' " Smoltz said. "The record would be nice, but I know my body, and I know what I was headed for (if the heavy workload continued).''

Smoltz currently leads Gagne in saves 44-43. That pace would leave them with 55 and 54 saves, respectively, but either could still challenge the record Thigpen set when he had 57 saves for the Chicago White Sox in 1990.

Smoltz's 0.89 ERA is lower than any of the seven relievers who have won the Cy Young (the best of those marks being Rollie Fingers' 1.04 in the strike-shortened '81 season). But it's overly simplistic to give the nod to Smoltz over Gagne because he has more saves and a lower ERA.

All Gagne has done is go 43-for-43 in save situations (the All-Star Game excluded) while holding opponents to a .133 batting average and striking out 15.4 batters per nine innings. Those numbers are absolutely obscene.

On Tuesday, Gagne celebrated the one-year anniversary of his last blown save. His streak of converted save situations stood at 51 entering the Dodgers' series at Houston. He had nailed down 95 of 99 chances since being shifted to the bullpen for the start of the 2002 season.

No reliever has ever had a stretch like this. Or a season like Gagne's 2003.

Eckersley's '92 season is considered the standard. He was 7-1 with 51 saves in 54 chances. He walked only 1.2 batters per nine innings but allowed opponents to hit .211, including a .262 average by left-handed hitters (remember Roberto Alomar's homer for Toronto in the playoffs?).

Gagne is handling left-handed hitters (.111) as well as right-handed hitters (.154). He's been incredibly durable, getting 22 of his saves working back-to-back days.

That's a Cy Young performance. Here's a look at my ballot five weeks from the finish line:

1. Gagne
2. Smoltz
3. Brown -- Because he has only 12 wins, it's easy to overlook what a great comeback he has made. His 2.15 ERA leads the majors. Twenty-two of 26 times out he's delivered quality starts, which also leads the majors. But among 97 qualifying pitchers, his average run support of 4.1 ranks 89th. The Dodgers have scored two runs or less in eight of his starts, including six of his last 10.

Also considered:

Ortiz -- For more than two months now, he's been almost unbeatable. He's 11-1 in his last 13 starts, giving him a major league-best 18 wins. He's on pace to finish 23-6. But a closer look shows he's been fortunate, as well as good. Atlanta is averaging 6.7 runs per start behind Ortiz, who ranks 13th in the NL with a 3.56 ERA. Only teammate Shane Reynolds (7.0) and St. Louis' Woody Williams (6.7) have had better run support.

Hideo Nomo -- Like Brown, run support has been a major issue for a very consistent starter. He's won 15 games despite the Dodgers averaging only 4.4 runs per game in his starts.

Schmidt -- The NL's All-Star Game starter has been spectacular at times, but only figures to make about 30 starts. He missed time early in the season because of the death of his mother and has had some elbow problems since a stretch of three consecutive games in late June.

Mark Prior -- Like Schmidt, the 22-year-old Prior might be making a serious run for the Cy Young Award had he not spent time on the disabled list. He missed three weeks with a sore shoulder after a base-running collision in July, but has been excellent since his return. If the Cubs make the playoffs, manager Dusty Baker should start him, and not Kerry Wood, in the Division Series opener.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.