Wagner shines in return, but Mets fall
Reliever tosses scoreless frame; Johan shorted support
NEW YORK -- So much has changed in Flushing since late November 2005 when the Mets put Billy Wagner in charge of happy endings. That 11th-hour responsibility no longer is his. And happy comes in only small and hard-to-find packages in these disillusioning days. Just the same, Wagner does have some say in another sort of ending. His tenure with the Mets is at that stage. He's confident he can find some happy somewhere else.
Wagner found a little Thursday evening in an otherwise unrewarding work shift for the Mets. He made his return, made his debut for 2009, made his first appearance at Citi Field, he made good on his promise to pitch in a season he easily could have lost. On this baseball evening that had little to show, he made himself a showcase.
It was a powerful, if brief performance in relief of Johan Santana in what became the Mets' 3-2 loss to the Braves. Removed from the disabled list before the game, Wagner pitched for the first time since he underwent Tommy John surgery and three other procedures on his left arm. Three weeks shy of the prescribed 12 months of rest and rehab, he pitched the eighth inning. And the totals were: three batters, three outs, 14 pitches, nine strikes, two strikeouts, a fly ball, lots of cheering and untold satisfaction.
Whether his cameo also produced interest among the scouts gathered at Citi Field is to be determined. But chances are Wagner won't be wearing orange and blue when the leaves begin to change color next month. The Tigers and Rays are known to have interest. Wagner has some, as well. And the Mets have a closer in place.
Wagner would love to move his career to a city where the big league season will extend well beyond September. He'd like to test that fastball -- the one that Citi's radar measured at 96 mph Thursday -- in a game of consequence and perhaps answer some of his own questions about 2010 and the quest for 400 saves. Or more. Who knows? For a 38-year-old man who knows all about endings, 14 pitches to three Braves batters on Aug. 20 may be a beginning.
If not that, it was at least an episode that moved him. The whole experience -- warming up in a bullpen mostly foreign to him, galloping over Citi's lawn and hearing some 39,000 folks express their appreciation for all he had done in 2 1/2 seasons and all he had done to make it back. And then the challenge -- "that caliber of hitter," he called it -- from a team that still has reason to consult the standings.
Wagner stepped back, behind the rubber after he had thrown his warmup pitches and gulped.
"That [the reception] was very nice, very enjoyable," Wagner said. "I was hoping just not to embarrass myself. I just didn't want to screw it up. You know, give up two bombs, walk three and hit a batter."
He didn't want to see heads shaking in the scout section.
None of that happened. He struck out rookie Reid Gorecki on six pitches, retired Chipper Jones on an opposite-field foul fly on a 3-0 pitch and struck out Brain McCann on four pitches. And then he departed, hailed by people who had wanted strikeouts, some semblance of what it was like at times in the past three seasons when the Mets' vital signs still were encouraging in August.
"That might have been the loudest I've heard it here," Sean Green said.
"I knew they wanted strikeouts," Wagner said. "And so did I. That's what I do."
And that's what he did. His one inning produced as many strikeouts as the other eight pitched by the Mets.
Santana was responsible for the first seven -- and the other two strikeouts -- and Francisco Rodriguez the last one. Santana emerged as the losing pitcher. For the ninth time in his 25 starts, the Mets scored fewer than three runs. For the ninth time this season, he lost. And the Mets lost for the 14th time in 21 games.
Santana (13-9) surrendered a long base-empty home run by Brian McCann in the fourth and two runs in the third. The Braves' two runs in the third were the results of doubles by two other left-handed hitters -- Adam LaRoche and Ryan Church -- and a sacrifice fly by Omar Infante. Santana allowed nine hits and walked none.
Kenshin Kawakami (6-9) was the winning pitcher, allowing seven hits, walking two and striking out five in seven innings. The Mets scored in the third inning on singles by Luis Castillo, Daniel Murphy and Cory Sullivan and in the eighth against Mike Gonzalez and Peter Moylan. An error by Jones allowed Jeff Francoeur to reach base with one out. After pinch-hitter Gary Sheffield struck out -- was it his final appearance as a Met? -- Fernando Tatis walked. Omir Santos followed with a pinch-hit single to score Francoeur after Moylan was summoned.
But little of that seemed to matter. The Mets already have turned their gaze to 2010. What they see is not clear, but this much is: Wagner is not in the plans. They know who was watching him. They probably know precisely what they want in return. They knew what was happening Thursday night. And, oh, did they want Wagner to perform well. So did he. And, to borrow phrasing from John Lennon, he hopes he passed the audition.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.