TORONTO – It's too early to make bold proclamations – Neil Wagner certainly won't – but the Blue Jays like what they see from the 29-year-old, fireballing, heretofore journeyman reliever.
“He's a guy that I can see sticking around here,” said pitching coach Pete Walker. “There's no doubt about it.”
“You don't take anything for granted,” said Wagner. “This is a game where nothing's promised to you and you have to earn your keep every time you go out there. I understand that; I'm okay with that. It's good to have the confidence of the coaching staff but just keep going out there, doing what I can do and the rest will take care of itself.”
Taken in the 21st round of the 2005 draft by Cleveland, Wagner spent four seasons in the Indians' system, never ascending beyond Double-A. He had the 98 miles per hour fastball but had difficulty harnessing the pitch. He would get hit one night, walk too many the next outing.
Fast forward to now, after a six-appearance cup of coffee with Oakland in 2011 and a rough season split between the Athletics' and Padres' Triple-A affiliates in 2012, Wagner's learned he'll be more successful if he puts less velocity on his fastball.
“I think part of it is just realizing when I try to hump up and throw, try and add two miles an hour here and blow it by this guy, is that you tend to muscle up and not be as fluid and tend to lose a little velocity in addition to losing location,” said Wagner. “Just focusing on staying within yourself, delivering a good pitch and the reality is that for the most part, when I do that, I get my better velocity anyway.”
“You can look at a radar gun all day long,” said bullpen coach and 1996 American League Cy Young award winner Pat Hentgen. “Sometimes two guys will throw 95 and you'll think it should be the same, should have the same results but that's not the case. Some guys' balls jump in that hitting area. I think Neil's in that category. Fastball command is always an issue with all pitchers and the better fastball command you have the more success you'll have long term and I think that's starting to happen for Neil.”
Wagner's first hiccup came on Sunday. Just two days removed from his first major league win, he suffered his first major league loss.
Pitching for a third consecutive day, Wagner was brought in with two outs in the seventh inning of a 4-4 game against Texas. Rangers' designated hitter Adrian Beltre hit an opposite field home run, giving Texas a lead it wouldn't relinquish.
If there was a time when Wagner would have worried about his fate either during, or in the aftermath, of such an outing, it's in the past.
“On some level you always, you know, you're not being sent down,” said Wagner. “You have to realize that you have no control over it. A guy hits a home run, there's nothing I can do at that point that's going to keep them from sending me down so all I have to do is refocus and get the next guy.”
With just the one earned run allowed – the Beltre home run – in eight innings over seven appearances, Wagner is making his case to hang around.
He's being used in pressure situations, slowly gaining the trust of manager John Gibbons and the coaching staff.
“They seem to like how I've been throwing the ball,” said Wagner. “I'm hoping to stay and hopefully they feel the same way. They seem to like what I've been doing so far and I'm going to try to keep doing that.”
MORROW FEELING GOOD
Brandon Morrow (forearm soreness) will throw a bullpen session in Chicago on Tuesday.
From there, he'll throw another bullpen upon his arrival at the Blue Jays' complex in Dunedin, Florida. Morrow will split from the team when it travels to Arlington after Wednesday's game.
WALKER REMEMBERS 18-INNING GAME
Prior to Saturday's 4-3 win over Texas, there was only one other 18-inning game in Blue Jays history.
Toronto beat the Angels 2-1 when Orlando Hudson singled home Alex Rios.
The winning pitcher that day was current pitching coach Pete Walker.
“It was one of those games where I don't believe I was supposed to pitch for some particular reason, whether it was short rest or what not,” said Walker. “I had my spikes on and as the game went on, that 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th inning, you saw one reliever after the other leave the bullpen to go into the game you started to sense that maybe this could happen.
“You know you've got to suck it up and find a way to get some outs and fortunately I was able to do that for a few innings and we won the game in the 18th inning.”
The starter for the Blue Jays that day? Dave Bush, who's back in the organization and pitching at Triple-A Buffalo.