Wagner Era Likely Over — So May Be Mets Chances

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

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There are injuries and capital-I Injuries, and Mets closer Billy Wagner, who last took the mound August 3, is now down with the latter. Yesterday, the team announced that their man will miss the rest of this year and possibly all of 2009 after undergoing surgery later this week for a comprehensive set of tears in his left arm. At 37, with a shredded ligament in his elbow and flexor in his forearm, there is a real chance Wagner has thrown his last effective pitch for the Mets.

With the Mets having run up a fine 22-10 record since Wagner last pitched, and with the team’s relief corps having recently pitched 26.2 straight innings without surrendering a run, it might seem that this isn’t that bad a deal. (It may even free up the team to go after Francisco Rodriguez this winter, though as he’ll be the only elite closer on the market and coming off setting a season record for saves, the bidding for his services will likely just prove why it’s called the winner’s curse.) On August 3, the Mets were in third place, three out of first place in the National League East; right now, they’re on top of their division, nursing a two-game lead. If Wagner’s absence has hurt them, more such pain can only do them good.

Neat as this logic seems, it isn’t right. The value of the proven relief ace is, in general, ludicrously overblown, but what’s happened to the Mets in Wagner’s absence hasn’t proved it. Yes, they’ve been fine even as Aaron Heilman has pitched his harrowing innings and as Luis Ayala, who brought a 5.77 ERA with him from Washington when the Mets picked him up in trade last month, has settled into the job as closer. They’d be far more fine had Wagner been around, though, and his absence may yet cost the Mets a chance to send Shea Stadium off in style.

During Wagner’s absence, the Mets bullpen has blown six games. (It’s pitched badly in or come near to blowing others, but can be fairly blamed for six losses.) Two of those — an August 6 loss to San Diego and an August 18 loss to Pittsburgh — were blown in innings when Wagner wouldn’t have been pitching. That leaves four games in which his presence might have made the difference, which is a lot.

The first of these was against Pittsburgh on August 11. In the top of the seventh, Joe Smith and Pedro Feliciano collaborated to turn a 5-1 lead into a 5-4 one. In the top of the ninth, Heilman, after striking out the leadoff man, gave up a single, a walk, and another single before bonking a hitter, after which Scott Schoeneweis technically gave up the decisive run. A healthy Wagner would presumably have been able to retire the likes of Luis Rivas and Doug Mientkiewicz.

The second of these losses came August 24, against Houston. The game was tied 4-4 in the top of the 10th when Feliciano managed to give up home runs to Brad Ausmus and Darin Erstad, the sort of thing that in another era might have led to a gambling investigation. The Mets may not have won this game with a healthy Wagner, but he certainly wouldn’t have given up home runs to two men with slightly more power than your greengrocer has.

The third blowup came August 26, against Philadelphia. Feliciano and Duaner Sanchez worked together in the eighth to let the Astros narrow a 5-7 deficit by a run; in the ninth, Ayala gave up the tying run, and in the 13th, Schoeneweis lost the game. Again, a healthy Wagner wouldn’t have guaranteed victory, but he certainly wouldn’t have hurt.

The final loss came August 30, against Florida. Sanchez let Mike Jacobs tie the game with a home run in the bottom of the eighth, and then Heilman lost it in the ninth. Wagner may have done so, or may have held the Marlins scoreless only to see the Mets lose in extra innings, but he likely wouldn’t have walked the leadoff man, uncorked a wild pitch, and then walked in the winning run, as Heilman actually did.

One who was so inclined could certainly make an argument that the Mets have blown only one classic save chance since Wagner went down, and that this shows that the closer role is vastly nearer irrelevance than baseball insiders and the press usually have it. This may be accurate in a very narrow sense, but it’s hard to run down this list, recall the horrific nature of some of these bullpen misadventures, and then say that Wagner hasn’t truly been missed.

Any way you count these games up, one thing is certain: Feliciano was intimately involved in five of the six clear bullpen failures mentioned here, and so far as a pitcher is just as capable of blowing a close game in the seventh as he is in the ninth, Feliciano ought to be at least as big a worry as anyone else in the Mets’ lately useful but still highly flammable pen. If Wagner’s unfortunate injury were to decide his team’s fate, it would be a shame; if Feliciano’s unfortunate pitching were to do so, it would be a tragedy.

tmarchman@nysun.com


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