DUNEDIN, Fla. â€” Nearly a decade since he last pitched in the big leagues, Eric Gagne is gearing up for the World Baseball Classic â€” and maybe a major comeback.
The former Cy Young Award closer threw a scoreless inning Tuesday for Team Canada in a 7-1 win over the Toronto Blue Jays, consistently hitting 93 mph with his fastball.
“Nervous, didn’t know what to expect, and it went well,” he said. “I just didn’t want to embarrass myself.”
Now 41, Gagne turned a one-shot deal into this opportunity.
Out of the majors since playing for Milwaukee in 2008, Gagne started for Ottawa of the independent Can-Am League last year as part of a promotion in the team’s regular-season finale. After retiring his first 12 batters, Gagne would up allowing one earned run, two hits and striking out six in five innings against Quebec.
“I know I’m ready physically and mentally, but going out there is a different story,” Gagne said. “It’s a great test right now to go against some major league guys and see where you’re at. For me it was a really, really successful day.”
Gagne relieved in the third inning against Toronto and retired Darwin Barney and Ezequiel Carrera on flyballs. After Jake Elmore walked on a 3-2 changeup and Kevin Pillar flared a single, Gagne ended the inning by getting a grounder from Melvin Upton Jr. on his 18th pitch.
“Looked like the old Gagne,” Canada first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “Throwing strikes.”
Gagne is among a group of pitchers with major league credentials taking the mound in the WBC, a list that includes Ryan Dempster, Bruce Chen, Jason Marquis, Chien-Ming Wang and Jair Jurrens.
Some, like Gagne, are hoping a strong WBC gets them another shot at the bigs.
Gagne won the 2003 NL Cy Young with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He went 33-26 with 187 saves in a 10-year career, including 55 saves in his prize-winning season.
The right-hander was pleased with his performance and velocity in a tuneup for the WBC.
“Maybe I’ll get up a little bit,” Gagne said. “For me anything above 90, if I keep the ball down with good angle, I think I’m fine.”
Said Canada manager Ernie Whitt: “I was very impressed with the way the ball was coming out of his hand.”
Dempster is taking a break from his job as a Chicago Cubs special assistant to play again. He and Gagne are providing guidance to the young pitchers on Canada’s staff.
“Our younger players are really feeding into it,” Whitt said. “They’re gaining information from them, and hopefully the younger players can take what they’ve learned from our veteran guys.”
Dempster, who last pitched in the majors four years ago, is the scheduled to start Canada’s WBC opener Thursday against defending champion Dominican Republic. He turns 40 in May.
Canada plays its second and final exhibition game Wednesday against the New York Yankees in Tampa, Florida.
“It’s going to be a quick study,” Whitt said. “They’re a great group of the guys. We have one purpose, that’s to come together as a group and compete, and try to represent our country the best we can.”
Mark Didtler, The Associated Press