Gagne hails from Cretin-Derham high school in St. Paul, MN. He led his high school team to a 29-0 record as a junior winning the state title. He was a USA Today honorable mention All-American as a third basemen out of high school. He was also a member of the National Honors Society for his academic achievements in high school and is nominated as an Academic All-American this season for the Irish.
Gagne comes from some impressive bloodlines. His grandfather is Verne Gagne—legendary professional wrestler who invented the sleeper hold. His other grandfather played football, baseball and hockey for the University of Minnesota. His father Greg Gagne also played football at Minnesota and Wyoming before a pro wrestling career.
Gagne says it was fun childhood. "Growing up it was really special for me. It was really neat for me learning how to deal with people and being around celebrities. Just being around my father and grandfather during that time was fun. I don't give anyone a sleeper but its kind of one of those nicknames that people make fun of me for."
Coach Mainieri wasn't so lucky at a dinner earlier this year. Gagne tells the story. "Up in Minnesota this year, we had a dinner and Verne was messing around with Coach and he put him in the sleeper just to fool around with him, it was pretty funny."
Gagne's bloodlines, his competitiveness and his work ethic make him the ideal candidate to close games for Notre Dame. "I feel very honored. I feel lucky to get the chance to be the closer for this team and get those saves. It's a much different role than my first two years here but it's something I really enjoy doing."
Gagne's job isn't easy considering the pressure placed upon him. He is known as fearless and that showed in 2002 in his role as the Irish closer. In the 2002 NCAA Super Regional, Gagne saved both wins against Florida State retiring nine straight to close the first game and struck out the side in the final inning of the second game to send the Irish to the College World Series.
Gagne was somewhat surprised to be put into his role. "I really feel I've made the adjustment well. My first two years here I was a starter. I was kind of known as someone who struggles the first two innings (laughs) so it was strange when I was put into that role. For me to make the adjustment to closing when your first pitch or your first batter could mean the difference in the game, I think I‘ve been pretty successful so far."
Gagne has been successful. Heading into the Rutgers series last weekend, Gagne was 12-for-12 in save appearances this season. He hadn't allowed a run in his last nine appearances--a span of 17.2 innings. He is two saves shy of tying the all-time record for career saves at Notre Dame held by former Irish pitcher John Corbin (20). Gagne has 89 career appearances and is also in line to tie or break the all-time appearances record of 92 held by Chris Michalak.
Pitching coach Brian O'Connor is Gagne's biggest fan. He knew he had something special in Gagne right when he came to Notre Dame as a freshman. "He came into college with kind of an aura about him," said O'Connor of Gagne. "He's a very competitive kid. He's not afraid of anything. His first college start, as a freshman was our second weekend of the season. He started against Minnesota—where he's from—in the Metrodome in front of 8,000 people and he went out and pitched pretty good. For a freshman to do that, you've got to be fearless. He's got a fearlessness about him and he's a competitor."
Gagne also does something that O'Connor expects in all his pitchers—he gets the ball over the plate. "He throws strikes," said O'Connor of Gagne. "When you are pitching at the end of the game, the number one thing you've got to be able to do is throw strike one. He throws that fastball in there and the hitter is down 0-1. He's got a number of off-speed pitches and he's got an outstanding changeup—his out pitch--and it's tough for any hitter to hit him."
O'Connor gives all the credit to Gagne for his development into one of the best closers in college baseball. "I'm as proud of him as anyone I've coached. I haven't been around a guy who has gotten more out of his ability than J.P. (Gagne). He's going to pitch in pro ball and he is going to be successful. To advance in professional baseball, it's a grind and this kid is a grinder. He's going to go out and work hard and believe in himself and he is going to be successful."
The praise doesn't stop with O'Connor. Head coach Paul Mainieri also can't say enough about Gagne. "It's been a tremendous pleasure and an honor to coach that kid because nothing was ever handed to him. He came here as a walk-on and he has exceeded all expectations. He's not blessed with the greatest fastball or the greatest breaking ball but he's gone out there and competed with tremendous poise and composure. We lost Stanley last year and we lost Heilman, J.P. will be as tough a guy as we've ever had to replace. He gives our team such confidence at the end of games. We are going to miss him dearly and he will be a tough guy to replace."
Gagne's versatility has meant so much to the Irish pitching staff. He can close the game in one inning or can go six innings and be just as effective. Against Rutgers last weekend, he had to go six innings and did the job. "They tied the game in the ninth and he goes out there an pitches six innings," said O'Connor. "When you are the visiting team and you're pitching in that situation, you know that you've got to shut them out to give your team the chance to score in the top half and then you have to shut them down again to win. That is the type of kid he is. He did the same thing when we beat Wake Forrest. (John) Axford went seven innings that game. The game went 13 innings and J.P. threw the last six and shut them out until we could score a run to win the game. He's done it numerous times in his career and that shows you what he's made of."
Gagne knows the formula to his success and certainly appreciates the high praise his coach has for him. "Drive, motivation, dedication to the program, I think that is what makes me successful. That's always been my goal, to make the most out of what I'm capable of doing. For coach O'Connor to say that is pretty much the highest honor he could give me. That has been my goal to max out my potential. I am working at that every day."
Coach O'Connor preaches the importance of recording that first strike. Gagne doesn't think that is as important to him now as it was when he younger. He laughed at how he sometimes gets himself into a pickle. "Early on in my career it was more important. As I've matured, it's not as important. I think it depends on your maturity. I've thrown a lot and I'm used to guys getting on base, I'm getting pretty good at that (allowing runners to get on). I'm used to getting out of jams so it's not as important for me."
The Minnesota native is excited about the possibility of being drafted and looks forward to the challenge. "I'm excited for the draft but at the same time it's going to be pretty sad. My experience in college has been unbelievable and the chances I've had and the experiences this team has had has been amazing. I'm really excited for the opportunity to live out a dream of mine and play professional baseball. I really can't wait for that opportunity."
Gagne knows that he couldn't have done this without help. He is very fond of this coaching staff and his pitching coach. "Coach O'Connor has been a huge influence on me. Like you said, he's maxed out my potential. He's taken an un-recruited, six-foot, scrawny kid from Minnesota and turned him into a pretty good pitcher I guess. He's meant a lot to me and what he has done for me has been unbelievable."
One person he will never forget and says he owes a lot to is Mainieri. "Coach Mainieri has been the biggest supporter of me. I've been a huge fan of his my whole career. The opportunity he has given me here is something I will never forget."
Gagne could make his last appearance on the mound at Eck Stadium today. If the Irish do not advance to the NCAA Tournament or are not awarded as a hosting site for a regional in the tournament, it will be his last. "It going to mean a lot to me," said Gagne of his last appearance. "It's the end of my career and the end of my time here at Notre Dame. The fans and the support we've had at Notre Dame has been unbelievable. It's going to be sad and I'm going to miss all those faces I see every day at the ballpark. Hopefully we come out with a win tomorrow and I can remember it as a good victory."
Spend five minutes with Gagne and you are guaranteed to laugh. Gagne is the heart of this Irish team. He keeps everyone loose on the bench and takes that nonchalant attitude with him to the mound. Nothing bothers Gagne and nothing surprises him—the perfect mind for a closer. Gagne could pitch in his last game at Eck stadium for the Irish today but it certainly won't be his last. Even if it were his last, he would be just fine with that.