Fast adjustment for Wagner

By Bob Ryan
Globe Staff / October 9, 2009

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ANAHEIM, Calif. - They told us he was a stand-up guy.

Here, therefore, is Billy Wagner on his six previous postseason performances: “You have to say it sucks. I’d like to have pitched better. Opportunity also comes with it. I probably only had five save opportunities, but I still sucked. It wasn’t like I was setting the world on fire.’’

The numbers back him up. In 10 1/3 postseason innings with the Astros and Mets, he gave up 18 hits and 11 earned runs. His ERA was 9.58. His WHIP was 1.83. It’s an ugly résumé, all right.

So, sure, Wagner would like a little personal redemption now that he is in another postseason, as a member of the Red Sox, even if he’s still feeling his way around after enduring elbow surgery and as he embraces a subsidiary role that is quite new to him.

The man came here as a career closer, with 385 saves, six All-Star appearances, and a dazzling career WHIP of 1.01. Now he’s one of the bullpen gang; no more, no less.

“Tito calls me, I pitch,’’ he shrugs. “It’s as simple as that.’’

And pitch he has. The 5-foot-10-inch, 180-pound southpaw has been exactly what the Red Sox have needed, and perhaps even more than they dared hope for, given his precarious physical status. In 15 appearances, he has given up one earned run. He has averaged 14-plus strikeouts per nine innings and has a WHIP of 1.10. He has struck out at least one man in 12 of his 15 appearances, and he’s had six 1-2-3 innings.

“Yeah, I’m a little bit surprised,’’ he acknowledges. “It’s all new. I never went through surgery like that and then come back to a playoff team. I haven’t had any setbacks’’ - he knocks on the nearest available semblance of wood - “so far. But one pitch, a tweak, you never know. I’ll worry about tomorrow when I get there.’’

It’s impossible not to look at this relatively unimposing 38-year-old and think to yourself, “This guy threw 100?’’ I remember the first time I heard of him. A good friend told me about this kid Houston had just brought up who didn’t look like much, and yet he was clocked at 100 m.p.h. Billy Wagner. Arms are a funny thing.

“I did throw 100, but I never thought about it,’’ he explains. “All I was trying to do was throw strikes. I pitched from a fear of failure. Now that I don’t throw 100, I’ve had to learn how to pitch.’’

On the subject of throwing 100, he was asked about rangy teammate Daniel Bard, who at least looks like someone who might be able to get it up there in the triple figures.

“Free and easy,’’ he says. “What a talent. He doesn’t seem to be caught up with anything. He has all the makings to be one of the best pitchers in baseball, and someday he will be.’’

Wagner maintains he’s never been in such a well-stocked bullpen.

“You can bring in a guy like [Takashi] Saito to pitch with a six-run lead,’’ Wagner points out. “That’s a pretty good bullpen, in that case.’’

That brings us to the subject of Jonathan Papelbon, who, in a classic harmless Papelbonian moment, had originally wondered why the Red Sox would want Wagner when they already had a quality closer. But that was just Pap Being Pap. It was a given that, once put together, they would hit it off.

And they have.

The vet is fascinated with the younger guy, who, at age 28, is no longer a kid.

“I’ve seen a lot of closers,’’ Wagner says, “but he is probably the most intense. A [John] Franco or [Trevor] Hoffman is more laidback. But Pap wears his heart on his sleeve. If a guy can back it up, there is nothing to say. And he can.’’

Wagner’s role is that he has no role.

“In a perfect world around here,’’ he says, “someone goes seven good innings and then Tito has a lot of choices in the eighth. Papelbon gets the ninth.’’

Clearly, he is not here to be one of those Paul Assenmacher/Mike Myers type of “situational southpaws.’’

“I don’t think either [Hideki] Okajima or myself are looked at that way,’’ he says. “Tito believes we can each get out both lefties and righties. Yup, he calls me, I pitch. It could be the sixth, the seventh, the eighth. But it is different for me. When the phone rings, I don’t know if it will be for me.’’

It’s pretty obvious he relishes this late-career opportunity for extensive October baseball.

“The postseason,’’ he says, “is something every professional athlete wants to be in. If you’re not excited about being in the postseason, you’re really in the wrong profession. That’s really what it’s all about.’’

He’s further pumped by the thought that he is with a team that really does have a chance to win it all.

“I really think the only other time I truly felt that way was in 1998, with Houston. I thought we had a team good enough to win, and then we ran into [the Padres’] Kevin Brown.’’

Obtained at minimal cost (minor leaguers Chris Carter and Eddie Lora), Billy Wagner has become an important piece of the Red Sox puzzle. Now it’s time to polish up that postseason résumé.

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