Strong start for revamped Mets 'pen
Wagner, Heilman demonstrate new attitude for relief corps
NEW YORK -- When the Mets decided that Aaron Heilman would, as a victim of circumstance, begin the 2006 season in the bullpen, Billy Wagner was among the first to welcome the right-hander.
One game into the campaign, Heilman has already started to return Wagner's favor.
Heilman pitched two innings of solid relief against the Nationals on Monday, helping to deliver a one-run lead to the Mets' closer. Wagner then fulfilled his end of the deal, pitching the ninth in his debut to preserve a tight 3-2 victory for New York.
"I have no use for cupcaking it," Wagner said. "Obviously, I'm probably not where I need to be, but why not get it out of the way?"
The Mets bullpen may have only used two arms and recorded nine outs at this earliest stage of the regular season, but the first returns are positive.
Things appeared on the field just as they have on paper, and even though Heilman is perhaps the most reluctant member of the bullpen, he said the support of his fellow relievers and teammates is helping him retrace his steps for a transition already made once last summer.
"I think everybody has been there before and understands," Heilman said. "I know that I'm going to go out there and help the team win, and do what it takes. It's nice to know I have the support of my teammates and they value me."
After Tom Glavine held the Nationals to a run and six hits over a 100-pitch, six-inning effort, Heilman was touched for one run and three hits in the seventh inning, including a RBI single to Jose Vidro.
Coming back to the bench, Heilman said he was greeted by pitching coach Rick Peterson, who told him he would return to work the eighth inning as well.
Heilman responded by blanking Washington in the frame, helped by a close call at the plate and finishing the inning with a strikeout of catcher Brian Schneider, who flung his bat wildly down the first-base line after swinging and missing at the final pitch.
An encouraging sign, according to Heilman.
"You can do all you want in Spring Training," Heilman said, "but when you get out there for the first time and you have the adrenaline going facing hitters, there's not much that can replace that. It definitely helps you to get ready and prepare for the next time."
While Heilman toiled with the important grunt work, the payoff came in the ninth inning, when the sellout crowd at Shea Stadium was presented with the chance to greet their new big-ticket closer.
David Wright had mentioned earlier that with the hype and high emotion of Opening Day, Glavine represented perhaps the ideal pitcher to start the contest, taking advantage of overeager hitters with his usual array of soft breaking balls and changeups.
If that's the case, then the hard-throwing Wagner might have been the perfect fit for the ninth inning, especially on a hand-numbingly chilly afternoon in New York.
Sprinting in from the bullpen to the strains of Metallica's "Enter Sandman," Wright could have blended in with any of the 54,371 trying to keep warm within Shea's seating area.
Enveloped within James Hetfield's vocals and guitar riffs, the third baseman was spotted jumping up and down on the infield like a little boy on Christmas.
"I get excited just hearing Billy's intro music," Wright said. "You see him sprint in from the bullpen, and it brings the energy level up for everybody else. The crowd gets excited and into it, and you see the look on his face. He's business."
Even though Wagner -- who was hampered by tendon sheath inflammation on his middle pitching finger during Spring Training -- admitted he wasn't at his top velocity, the crowd appeared at full volume in celebrating Wagner's debut.
Every strike Wagner delivered was greeted with a roar, every out just one more reason to celebrate. But as for the sprint? Not quite a crowd-pumping gimmick, though Wagner isn't about to turn down the fringe benefits.
"I've always done it," Wagner said. "Honestly, I'm just trying to get out there quick and get it over with, as soon as possible. If I walked, it'd take too long."
Bryan Hoch is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.