All systems are go for the Dodgers closer, who has missed most of the past two seasons with injuries after stringing together a record 84 consecutive save conversions from August 28, 2002, through July 3, 2004.
Gagne faced hitters on Friday for the first time since April 7 surgery to remove a nerve near his elbow. The 20-pitch session marked another large step in his return to the Dodgers bullpen.
"It was very exciting to get back on the mound and face some kind of competition," he said. "I know they are not in their element, but for me, it was great. I'm happy. I felt good, really good. Awesome."
Gagne returned to the Dodgers clubhouse, went through the usual post-workout treatment, and looked ahead. He has another batting practice session next Tuesday, and if all goes well, he'll report to Triple-A Las Vegas for a rehab assignment.
The schedule calls for him to rejoin the Dodgers on or about June 1 when the team returns from a road trip to Washington and Atlanta. That can't come too soon for a pitcher accustomed to pitching 70 or 80 games a season.
"I feel 100 percent right now," he said. "I feel like I'm ready."
But he also realizes that he must build up his stamina and make sure that his shoulder, arm and elbow are completely sound before resuming the role as game-ender.
"From what I saw out there today, I'm kind of curious why it might be two weeks before he's ready to pitch," Little said. "I was impressed."
Even so, caution is the buzzword.
"We'll play it safe with him," Little said.
The Wild, Wild West: The National League West was a dogfight most of last season, and the same scenario is happening in '06.
Going into Friday night's Interleague Play, there was a two-game gap between the Padres and Giants, and all five teams had winning records.
"Anything can happen in an evenly matched division," Little said.
The defending division champion Padres (the only NL West team to finish with a winning record last season at 82-80) went from last to first in less than 10 days.
"You are probably going to see that more than once over a 162-game season," Little said. "We have gotten ourselves in position where we look forward to when have a healthy ballclub. We haven't been in that position yet."
Best of Nomar: Little has seen a lot of Nomar Garciaparra over the years and says the past two weeks have been something he's never seen before.
"I have never seen him this good," the manager said.
Garciaparra, selected as the National League Co-Player of the Week, has reached base with a hit or walk in 13 consecutive games, with seven multihit efforts. Over his last seven games, Nomar is 7-for-8 from the seventh inning on, according to STATS, Inc.
"Experience is the big factor," Little said. "He recognizes pitches better now than he ever has."
Garciparra is batting .354 this month (23-for-65), but that is par for the course. May has been one of his favorite months -- he batted .355 in 1999, .324 in 2000, .318 in '02 and .339 in '03.
Medical report: Second baseman Jeff Kent returned to the lineup Friday night after missing one game because of stiffness in his lower back. But center fielder Kenny Lofton was out again with a sore hamstring.
Little said, "I like to think that [Lofton] will be there tomorrow, but it's day-to-day."
Roster move: The Dodgers recalled right-hander Lance Carter from Triple-A Las Vegas and optioned Franquelis Osoria to Vegas. Carter was 1-1 with three saves and a 1.08 ERA in eight appearances with the 51s.
"Lance got himself straightened out during his little trip to Vegas," Little said.
Good blood: The Dodgers and Angels Booster Clubs are squaring off for the eighth consecutive year to see which group can get more blood donated during the Freeway Series Blood Drive on Saturday, June 10. Fans can call 1-800-GIVE-LIFE to make an appointment.
Coming up: Interleague Play continues Saturday afternoon with the Dodgers starting right-hander Brett Tomko (5-1, 2.88 ERA) against Angels right-hander Kevin Gregg (2-2, 3.86 ERA) in a 1:10 p.m. PT game at Dodger Stadium.