October in mind, Wagner adds pitch
Split-finger fastball designed to give Mets closer endurance
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- He was involved in the bunt coverage drills and made an impression with his seemingly effortless but powerful throws to bases. Then, Ambiorix Burgos moved to the mound of an adjacent field for live batting practice and his pitches popped into the catcher's mitt, the audible manifestation of his power arm.
"He's throwing 98 [mph], but [Lastings] Milledge is swinging 100," Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson said to senior executive vice president and COO Jeff Wilpon as Burgos' pitches made a warm day warmer. "So it's OK."
In this Mets camp and at this early stage, the 22-year-old reliever imported from the Royals is the king of pop, a label that has almost always belonged to closer Billy Wagner, regardless of the date or the uniform he's worn.
Wagner has no problem deferring to Burgos, who is 13 years his junior and significantly bigger than the left-handed Wagner.
"Other camps I've been in have had guys lighting it up," Wagner said. "I never throw great in the spring."
What makes this camp different for Wagner is that he is deferring to time as well. After enduring a less-than-fulfilling, low-octane October, he decided less might mean more for him. Call it a split decision.
Wagner is working on developing a split-finger fastball, a pitch designed to complement his normal four-seam fastball and, more to the point, enable him to reach the end of the season -- whenever that might be -- with fuel still in his tank.
It's what a power pitcher does these days if he's in his mid-30s or older.
With an expression of consternation, Wagner acknowledged on Wednesday that "I had nothing left when we went to St. Louis."
He had thrown 1,242 pitches in 70 regular-season appearances before facing the Dodgers in the National League Division Series, and by the time he took on the Cardinals, Wagner had thrown another 58 -- 1,300 pitches for No. 13, more than he had thrown in all but one his previous 10 seasons.
Wagner was hardly dominant in his two appearances against the Cardinals, surrendering three runs in two-thirds of an inning in a Game 2 loss and allowing two runs in one inning in Game 6. A 26.99 ERA in the NLCS is not what Wagner or the Mets had in mind 11 months earlier, when he was put in charge of happy endings.
And those numbers came after a regular-season performance that Wagner himself characterized as "not an impressive year."
When Wagner told Peterson that he wanted to get back to being the old Billy, Peterson suggested developing a two-seam fastball to give hitters a different, sinking look.
Wagner worked with that suggestion during the offseason, his index and middle fingers aligning with the stitches on either side of the ball's sweet spot.
His experimental pitchers sunk, as desired.
But when Wagner almost inadvertently spread his fingers wider, a sharper break resulted from the modified split.
"It's not a great, big break," Wagner said on Wednesday, after completing the first official full-team workout.
That made the new pitch an official part of Wagner's second Mets camp.
"It's not like some of the big ones," he said. "But I've been working on it in side seasons, and it's been pretty good. It's something different for me, and I pretty much know where it's going."
And that's always reassuring.
"I wanted something I could throw early in the count and maybe get a ground ball and maybe throw a few less pitches," Wagner said. "I'm getting too old to be just throwing full-bore all the time.
"But don't worry -- I'll get it up there."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.