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Wagner seems in right setting

Unfamiliar role going quite well

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / September 3, 2009

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - As good as Billy Wagner has been so far with the Red Sox - two innings and five strikeouts - it’s hard to imagine just how good he was in his prime. Even Wagner said he isn’t good at comparisons.

Terry Francona, though, was able to recall just what made Wagner so good.

“He could probably hit 98, 99 sometimes, with a breaking ball that would take your skin off,’’ said the Sox manager.

He’s not quite that pitcher anymore - after Tommy John surgery that cost him most of this season - but what he has shown has been more than enough against the Blue Jays and the Rays.

“There’s good things and bad things, I’m sure,’’ Wagner said. “My location is not very good. Breaking ball has been OK. Movement on fastball has been good, but not very locating. Good and bad.’’

“I don’t think I’ve tried to do too much. I think that’s the difference. I think if I’d have come back and went right into the closer, you’d have tried to push it because of the adrenaline. There’s not been much adrenaline pitching in the seventh and eighth. There will be as games get tighter, but I haven’t had that. I’ve not been in any real stress role.

“Even when I’m facing the middle of the lineup or the best hitters, it hasn’t been where I’m like, ‘Well, jeez, if I don’t get this guy we’re going to lose.’ Just do my thing and go pitch to pitch, instead of worry about what could happen.’’

That approach appears to be working, as Wagner has moved from elite closer to setup role.

“It’s like anything else,’’ Wagner said. “You go out there and you throw a zero up in the seventh inning, it’s just like closing out the seventh inning.

“I’ve always understood the importance of the setup man and stuff. What you want to do is you get the ball to the closer with a lead and things usually work out. That’s my job. That’s what I would want happening for me if I was closing and it’s great.

“I had no problem. I think it’s stressless. There’s four or five other guys in there - if I start screwing up, they’re going to bring somebody else in.’’

As a guy coming off major surgery who wasn’t even expected to pitch this season, Wagner knows he hardly has the right to demand anything. So he’s content to pitch the seventh or eighth, hopefully helping to guide the Sox toward a championship.

He doesn’t care how hard he’s throwing - though he did point out that some of the Rays said their gun, which caught him at 94 Tuesday, is slow - as long as he’s getting batters out.

“He’s probably competing before he should be,’’ Francona said. “If you asked the doctors and everything else, I think he’s probably way ahead of schedule. So I think what we get we just need to be grateful for, and try not to abuse it.’’

Test time
Tim Wakefield threw to 120 feet on flat ground yesterday, two days after he received a cortisone shot for the back and leg trouble that returned after his last start. If he continues to progress, there’s a chance that Wakefield could throw a side session today. That, Francona said, would be the best-case scenario.

Asked when he might be ready to pitch, Wakefield said, “Tomorrow.’’

He added, “It’s a matter of testing it out. Gotta push the envelope now. We’re running out of time. So push it as hard as I can go, see what happens. Maybe this weekend in Chicago.’’

Paul Byrd is scheduled to pitch tomorrow and Junichi Tazawa Saturday.

“The pain in my back is gone from the injection,’’ Wakefield said. “My weakness has come back. I think it’s more, medically speaking, there’s more fluid in there now.’’

The ins and outs
While Francona did not choose to pinch hit for Alex Gonzalez in the eighth inning, he did hit for Jason Varitek, inserting Casey Kotchman. Kotchman drew a walk off Grant Balfour, against whom Varitek was 0 for 11. Francona said he made the move because of his expanded bench, and because of the pitcher . . . Rays manager Joe Maddon has used his bullpen liberally over the first two games of the series, including a stretch in the seventh and eighth innings last night in which seven Sox batters faced six different pitchers. Four Rays pitched in the eighth . . . Sox pitchers have 57 strikeouts over their last five games, including 25 in the first two games of this series . . . Jacoby Ellsbury stole his 56th base of the season, taking over the AL lead from Carl Crawford.

No problem
Francona said Jon Lester’s groin is not an issue, after the Sox took him out of Tuesday night’s game as a precautionary measure . . . Jonathan Papelbon was not available last night after pitching two innings for the save Tuesday night . . . Mike Lowell will get a start tonight after sitting out last night. Lowell is hitting .326 over his last 12 games, and .351 since July 17. “I’ve tried to spend a lot of time looking two, three, four days ahead, looking at travel, looking at rest, looking at who’s pitching,’’ Francona said. “I know he wants to play every day. I completely respect that, but I think that’s working out pretty well.’’ . . . According to the St. Petersburg Times, a Rays employee was arrested before last night’s game for planting a hoax device. William L. Jordan, 38, is a mechanic who built a fake bomb and hid it as a “practical joke,’’ according to the police. Police found a box taped to a shelf with wires making a beeping noise. The police were called, and Jordan told them it wasn’t a real bomb.

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