Thursday, August 27, 2009
Wagner eager to fill any role in Boston
BOSTON -- Billy Wagner showed up in his new clubhouse and found a No. 13 Boston Red Sox jersey waiting for him.
How did he end up with that symbol of bad luck?
The newest member of the Red Sox throws in the outfield at Fenway Park in the presence of closer Jonathan Papelbon.
"Not too hard. It was in my locker," the left-hander with 385 career saves said Thursday. "I'm coming to a new team. I can't ask for nothing."
Not after being told his career was over. Not after pitching just 11 months after having Tommy John elbow surgery. And not after going from the struggling New York Mets to the contending Red Sox.
Even if his new team already has one of baseball's best closers, Jonathan Papelbon.
Eager to reach the World Series for the first time, Wagner said he would fill "whatever role they want me to -- water boy, towel guy, lefty specialist. I don't care."
Wagner took the roster spot of another former National Leaguer, struggling starter Brad Penny. He was released after going 7-8 with a 5.61 ERA this season and just 1-6 in his last 11 starts. The Red Sox had signed him to a $5 million, one-year contract after four full seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"He was a good teammate and he worked hard," manager Terry Francona said. "When he's good, he's strong and he's down [with his pitches]. It wasn't as consistent as we wanted."
That move came 10 days after the Red Sox released another former NL starter, John Smoltz, who went 2-5 with an 8.32 ERA. He had signed a $5.5 million, one-year contract after spending his entire career with Atlanta and is now with St. Louis.
The transition could be easier for a reliever who rarely, if ever, faced the opposing pitcher late in close NL games.
"You might have to ask me after my first outing," Wagner joked. "Hopefully, I'll be fine."
He likely would pitch in the seventh or eighth inning, but not on consecutive days as he continues his comeback.
The 38-year-old Wagner threw a bullpen session Thursday and should be ready to pitch Friday night in the opener of a three-game series with the Toronto Blue Jays. He appeared in his only two games this season last Thursday and Monday, striking out four and walking one in two scoreless innings.
"I'm excited," Wagner said. "Eleven months after Tommy John somebody wants somebody like me to help them maybe get in the playoffs."
The Red Sox wanted another lefty to join Hideki Okajima and bolster an already outstanding bullpen for the stretch drive. They led the AL wild-card race by two games over Texas and were 5½ back of East-leading New York entering Thursday night's game against the Chicago White Sox. The Rangers beat the Yankees 7-2 in an afternoon game.
Wagner waived his no-trade clause after Boston agreed to decline his option for next season. He wants to reach 400 saves and also is aiming for John Franco's lefty record of 424.
But Wagner won't reach those marks with Papelbon closing for Boston. Papelbon sounded lukewarm during the trade talks but said he was excited after the deal was finalized Tuesday.
"I talked to him quite a bit. Everything was so blown out [of proportion]. We're fine," Wagner said. "I understand that he's got a lot of close friends. They've been doing a great job. They've got the best bullpen in the American League and here you are taking a chance on a 38-year-old man coming over within 11 months of Tommy John" surgery.
Once, Wagner was told his career was over. Other pitchers have come back from the operation, but his case was different.
"My age had such a big crucial part [and] being a power pitcher that I may not be able to go back and pitch that style of baseball," he said. "That kind of motivates you."
One of his concerns about joining the Red Sox was his ability to fulfill their plans for him.
"The last thing you want to do is go out there and not be able to perform the way you have in the past and not help," Wagner said, "but talking to [Francona] and these guys, they understood what they were looking for and what I could offer them and they think that I can do it"
Wagner was 0-1 with a 2.30 ERA with 27 saves last year. He has a 39-37 career record with a 2.39 ERA over 15 seasons with Houston, Philadelphia and New York.
"When I first saw him, he threw harder than anybody in the league and when you add that to being a left-hander with a breaking ball that will take your skin off, it's a lethal combination," said Francona, who managed Philadelphia from 1997-2000 when Wagner was with Houston. "His velocity has still been tremendous."
Wagner said his recovery progressed so well that he knew in April he could pitch this season. Now that he's done it, he's not focusing on where his next stop will be.
"I've never worried about the next year," he said. "I'm worried about today, considering what I've come through. So I've worked just for that next day, to get there and be able to pick up the ball."