SEATTLE (AP) -The bushy hair and matching goatee look the same. But the Eric Gagne who was getting ready for his first game with the Texas Rangers on Friday night was definitely not the same powerhouse closer who dominated for the National League from 2002-04.
``Uh, no. Not the same old self,'' Gagne said with a wry smile hours after the Rangers activated him from the 15-day disabled list. He took the roster place of starter Jamey Wright, who went on the DL with shoulder stiffness.
Gagne's fastball reached the upper 90s while he was the NL's Cy Young award winner in 2003 after a 55-save season for the Los Angeles Dodgers, part of his major league-record 84 consecutive converted saves that ran into '04. He said it's now down to 92 or 93.
``But I'll take that right now,'' he said. He said his changeup was ``great'' during his two-week rehabilitation stint at Double-A Frisco.
Gagne, who has pitched in just 16 games over the last two seasons, will take just getting back on the field. Surgery last July 8 removed 85 percent of his L-4 and L-5 vertebrae in his lower back. That followed surgery in April to remove a nerve in his right pitching elbow.
It took Gagne until October following the back surgery to jog without pain. Then he had to wait until his elbow was ready for an extensive throwing routine, which he finally eased into by February. He still has occasional elbow soreness.
No wonder Gagne looked and sounded excited while he prepared for his delayed opening day inside the Rangers' clubhouse. Manager Ron Washington was eager to get his closer into Friday's series opener no matter what, part one of the Texas' $6 million, one-year gamble it took on Gagne in December. The contract includes up to $5 million in potential bonuses based primarily on the number of games he finishes.
Washington sounded excited, too.
``The two weeks (at Double-A) gave him more confidence ... and the chance to distinguish soreness from being just soreness and not an injury,'' Washington said. ``He's ready to go.''
The first-year manager said he will not hesitate to use Gagne in consecutive games right away. But Gagne will strictly be a ninth-inning ace - no four-to-six out save situations for him. Washington talked glowingly about Gagne pitching ninth innings, Akinori Otsuka pitching the eighth and Joaquin Benoit entering in the seventh, provided Rangers starters can last six innings.
``I like what I've got seven-eight-nine,'' Washington said.
Gagne said the three outings he had at Double-A - which amounted to an extended spring training for him - were valuable in teaching him how to pitch with less reliance on his fastball and more on finesse.
Finesse and Gagne. Not exactly why the Dodger Stadium public address system used to blare Guns 'N Roses' rock anthem ``Welcome to the Jungle'' each time he entered a game in Los Angeles.
``It's a work in progress - with my whole body,'' Gagne said. ``I've still got a little work to do, but I'm getting close.''

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