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Dan Shaughnessy

Gagné throws it into reverse

Eric Gagné lived the entire Boston experience in one short inning. He was the goat, the piñata, and the object of scorn. And then he was the greatest thing since sliced Yaz Bread.

He was booed and ridiculed. He heard words he never heard in the Bible.

And then he was the winner. He was the Man.

"Of course you hear it," Gagné said after the Red Sox' pulsating 2-1 walkoff win over the Devil Rays last night. "You feed off the fans. There was a lot of talking going on. It was noisy. They know the game. They're not just sitting there cheering or booing. They really know the game."

Gagné is one of the greatest relief pitchers in the history of baseball. He's a Cy Young Award winner who once converted 84 consecutive save opportunities. His arrival in Boston on trade deadline day was greeted with almost as much enthusiasm as the Celtics' press conference introducing Kevin Garnett the same day. Gagné made the Sox World Series favorites in the eyes of many experts, and Sox fans mocked the standstill Yankees while tossing bouquets at the feet of Theo and the minions.

And then Gagné got the ball and pitched like Johnny Way-Back Wasdin. He had five outings, none of them clean. In four innings, he allowed 10 hits and 7 runs for an ERA of 15.75. He blew two games in three days in Baltimore, first spitting up a 5-1 lead, then coughing up a game-tying two-run homer to Miguel Tejada.

Just like that. He went from Invincible to Vin Baker. He was Eric Gag-me-with-a-spoon. Not to be trusted in a close game. Unable to set up for Jonathan Papelbon. Not a guy who could make it in Boston.

This is what he lugged out to the Fenway mound in the ninth inning last night. There were sharks in the stands and he was bleeding badly. The Sox trailed, 1-0, and it was looking like a wondrous homecoming for Jon Lester was going to waste. When Gagné went to 3-and-0 on the first batter he faced (Carlos Peña), it sounded as if Ulf Samuelsson had just been introduced at the old Garden. It was nasty. Just for a 3-and-0 count.

And then Gagné remembered what he loves about the game. He remembered the gift inside his right arm and shoulder. He threw a hellacious 90-something fastball for a called strike and he was on his way back.

"The first strike there was probably the best fastball I've thrown since coming here," he said after Coco Crisp's two-out single won it in the bottom of the ninth.

"I don't care what anybody says, if you don't get people out for three days, your confidence goes a little bit."

He found what was lost. He caught Peña looking at a third strike. A 3-and-2 changeup. Veteran move. Then he struck out Delmon Young swinging. Brendan Harris interrupted the feel-good inning with a long double to right, but Gagné dug in and struck out Johnny Gomes. Looking.

It was a quick turnaround in the stands. Folks who had been booing stood and cheered. The Sox dugout embraced Gagné. And the momentum carried into the bottom of the inning.

This is what's been missing. The Sox have the best record in baseball. They've been in first place for 122 days. But there hasn't been any late-game magic. Only one walkoff win, and that one shouldn't even count since it was delivered by clueless (former) Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo.

Last night's ninth was different. Mike Lowell homered. Jason Varitek doubled. And with two out, Crisp singled on a 3-and-2 pitch. Cut to "Dirty Water" and "Tessie."

"It's nice to see our guys jumping on each other," acknowledged Terry Francona. "We haven't seen that a lot."

The manager gets a big assist in this one. He's easy to tweak because he does so much to accommodate his players. There's not a Little League manager who worries more about keeping the guys happy. You expect Tito to take the players out to Tastee Freeze after a tough loss. He wants his players to be "comfortable." Above all else. And it can be annoying to the old-schoolers.

But not every manager would give Gagné the ball again in a one-run game after all that happened in his first two weeks here.

"He was pitching the ninth tonight, regardless," said Francona. "This is a veteran guy who has a lot of innings under his belt. I actually have liked his demeanor. I think for what he's been going through his first 10 days, he's been an unbelievable teammate."

Asked about Francona's confidence in the darkest of hours, Gagné said, "That's huge. He's positive all the time. He trusted me."

The trust was rewarded. And it all turned around in one quick inning.

Eric Gagné was a bomb. Then he was the bomb.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at