PHOENIX -- Not one pitch of game action yet this spring, but the Dodgers are already cautiously optimistic about the chances for Eric Gagne's comeback. After studying video of Gagne's "Game Over" glory days, bullpen coach Ken Howell dug out of his files a "Thoughts for Success" notebook he put together in 2004 for the young pitchers he was coaching in the Minor Leagues. The front cover was a collection of quotes from legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. Included inside was a frame-by-frame breakdown of Gagne's delivery.
Last week, Howell showed it to Gagne, who immediately could see he's lost the arm extension that made him great while dealing with shoulder problems the past two years. The former Cy Young Award-winning closer made a quick adjustment and, according to Howell, immediately gained velocity on his fastball and drop on his changeup, although not yet with enough consistency. "It was right there, kind of amazing," said Gagne, who long ago was Howell's textbook example of mechanical consistency. "You can tell when you're doing it wrong because of the way the ball goes. I know when I'm doing it, but to see it makes it easier to understand and fix." Gagne said his main mechanical flaw starts with his leg lift and, when done improperly, it causes his body to spin right to left. His pitches flatten and his control from side to side wavers, as well as up and down. When done correctly, he squares up better with the plate upon release and the margin for error is mostly high and low, not right to left. "I used this to show young guys ... his position between the point where the hands separate to the front-side extension," Howell said of the Gagne photos in the notebook. "Gagne was the textbook. But you get hurt, you make subtle changes to be comfortable and you lose the feeling for the correct release point. I wanted, through the pictures, to get that back into his head from a time when he was so dominant. It blew him away." And Gagne's next bullpen session, on Sunday, showed flashes of repeating that correct delivery. "It's there, and he can help us," said Howell. "My plan with him is to spend a lot of time and see it through. With his work ethic, he's a true professional and he's going to find it. "I've been down this road, coming back from an injury. He's going to get it. I'm very satisfied that he's healthy now. He's just got to get the feel back." Gagne is trying to make the club on a $500,000 Minor League contract. He left the Dodgers after an injury-filled 2006 season and the journey has taken him to Texas, Boston, Milwaukee and an independent league team in his native Canada before winding up back with the Dodgers.
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.