Friday night might be the night for Billy Wagner. It might be the game he creeps closer to feeling a bit more like his old self.
In among the meaningless innings that encompassed much of the Red Sox’ 3-0 win over the Indians on Thursday night at Fenway Park, there were a few things that offered some importance.
First and foremost, Jon Lester showed he could deal as usual, cruising through 6-1/3 innings, not giving up a run and only allowing two hits six days after having a Melky Cabrera line drive rifle off his right knee/quad.
Then there was Wagner.
The 38-year-old reliever needed just eight pitches to cruise through the eighth inning, thereby putting him in position to accomplish something he had been lobbying the Red Sox for since his arrival — pitching on back-to-back days.
“There’s a possibility,” Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell said. “We’ve been waiting for an outing where it’s been 10-13 pitches, and he threw eight pitches [Thursday]. We’ll talk more about it if it’s in his and our best interest to do that. If there is an opportunity, that would certainly be [Friday].
“We had hoped to get it accomplished before the season ended. It sets up for us to be able to do that tomorrow. If it works out that way it remains to be seen. He’s been asking for quite some time to do it, but we just didn’t want to push it. But this lines up to do just that.”
For Wagner, who hadn’t heard any definitive word on the matter by the time he left the clubhouse, the news was welcome.
“You don’t want to get to the playoffs and say, ‘Oh, I can’t go back-to-back.’ It would be a bad situation to go out there in Anaheim and not be able to do your job,” the reliever said. “So we’ll find out now and save them the worries.”
Wagner has been a success since coming to the Red Sox, allowing three earned runs over his 13 innings (2.08 ERA). In 17 at-bats, left-handed hitters have managed just a pair of hits, another sign the southpaw is doing what is asked.
And, perhaps most important, Wagner hasn’t experienced any hiccups when it comes to dealing with his surgically repaired left elbow, which is why the discussion regarding pitching on back-to-back days can be broached.
But despite images to the contrary, life as a set-up man has been difficult for Wagner. Take, for example, his description of the feeling he gets when running in from the bullpen in the seventh or eighth inning, compared to his familiar routine as a closer.
“Sometimes almost worthless,” he said. “It almost feels like spring training. It’s like, ‘OK, I’m going to go out and throw my inning.’ It’s not like I’m not going to go out there and be competitive and be the best, but it’s different. Fifteen years of being either the hero or the goat … I don’t know if it’s even in between. It just feels meaningless at times. I don’t think it feels like a big inning, and it is, but after closing for so long it’s not that rush of going out there and still trying to work back and be healthy. It’s just a different feeling.”
Wagner knew the deal when he came to the Red Sox. The doctors in New York said — as he explained it — that he could pitch his 15 or 16 innings with the Mets and finish off the regular season, having shown the baseball world that he was fit to close again next season if he wanted to. But, with the encouragement of his wife, the reliever chose the life he currently leads with the playoff-bound Red Sox.
He makes it clear there is enjoyment in his journey with the Sox, but there also are adjustments that still feel uneasy. Take, for instance, the waiting he has had to endure while throwing no more frequently than every other game.
“It’s terrible. It sometimes seems useless to come to the ballpark,” Wagner said. “I’ve talked to John [Farrell] and them, saying, ‘I can pitch today. I can pitch today.’ They’re being cautious, which is great, but I’ve gone 15 years without anybody being cautious. That’s a hard thing to kind of work into. But I couldn’t be happier with how they’ve treated me and worked me in. It’s part of the deal, I understand, but that’s not going to stop me from wanting to pitch.”
Thus far this season, Wagner has pitched on one day's rest eight times, two days' rest four times, 3-5 days' rest three times, and six or more days' rest once.
But more than just the downtime while waiting for his next chance, Wagner also is dealing with the life he has to live as guy who isn’t getting the final out. It starts with the unfamiliar feeling that he simply can’t shake.
“I don’t like it that way because it’s weird when you’re used to finishing innings and all of a sudden you’re getting taken out. I went from a closer who faced anybody and everybody to, ‘Hey, this is it.’ And you’re kind of like, ‘I don’t understand.’ The role is different and it takes getting used to,” he said. “It is more relaxing and you don’t have the adrenaline when you close. Hitters don’t approach you the way they did when you were closing. You have to learn that, and that’s what I’m going through right now.”
And that’s the second part of it, how the opposition is treating him.
Wagner points to his Sept. 21 outing in Kansas City as a perfect example of the differences he is facing. Coming on in the seventh inning, the reliever kicked off the frame by striking out Josh Anderson and Willie Bloomquist with little problems. But then Mitch Maier came up with seemingly very little worry about being the one to get something done.
The result was a walk to Maier, and a subsequent run-scoring double by the Royals’ next batter, Billy Butler.
“I went out there and punched out two guys and made them look silly, and then the next guy stood there like he wasn’t going to swing and wasn’t worried,” Wagner said. “I’ve seen it in years past with our other relievers. You have to be a little bit better pitcher in the middle, [the] seventh- or eighth-inning guy, than you do when you’re the ninth-inning guy. You can get away with a few more things because you have the urgency of the situation on your side.
“They don’t swing at pitches that they swing at in the ninth inning. They don’t approach you the same. I’ve probably walked more guys in the little time I’ve been here than I’ve walked in the last two years. That 3-2 pitch that’s close but they don’t swing, where in the ninth inning that pitch they swing or you get the call. It’s the urgency of the at-bat.”
Wagner wants to return to his life of a closer if at all possible next season, but he's content in the trade-off that comes with being on a team heading into the playoffs this season. Still, dealing with such things as living the life of a set-up man who isn’t expected to pitch on consecutive days remains a different kind of challenge. It's one he hasn’t faced throughout what could potentially be a Hall of Fame career.
It’s why Friday night, if he's called upon for a second straight game, could offer some sense of solace.
“The back-to-back is more not to say I can do it or can’t do it, but more to just to feel like you’re a pitcher,” Wagner said. “To feel like I can go anytime, every day, whatever you need, let’s go. That’s hard for me. I understand what I’m up against. Any time I go out there I could blow out and my career might be over, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to be out there every day.”
It’s just one of five things we learned on the night the Red Sox snapped their six-game losing streak.
BUSINESS AS USUAL FOR LESTER
Jon Lester supplied a heavy dose of optimism for the Red Sox heading into the postseason thanks to his outing.
The lefty, who was coming off the frightening moment in Yankee Stadium last Friday, threw 6-1/3 shutout innings, allowing just two hits while striking out seven, walking one and throwing 84 pitches.
“There were no issues with the knee,” pitching coach John Farrell said. “We wanted to keep in that pitch range somewhere, and the fact he got into the seventh inning was a plus. Really, from the third inning on he was much more consistent in the bottom of the zone. He did a heck of a job.”
Lester struggled with getting the ball down in the zone in the first inning, allowing healthy fly balls to the first three Indians batters of the game. But as the outing progressed, the pitcher who had dominated for much of this season emerged, facing the minimum number of batters through the first 5-1/3 innings.
“After my side day, all the questions that were out there about my knee I really didn’t have anymore,” Lester said. “I treated it like a normal start just like any of the 32 I’ve had all season.
“I think I got into a better rhythm, a better flow of the game. Sometimes when you go out there early on you try to do too much to overthrow. You’re not in sync. It took me a couple of innings to find that rhythm, and once I did I felt a better consistency as far as all my pitches and being down in the zone and repeating throughout.”
Other than perhaps his previous start, against the Yankees, Lester’s dominance has been definitive. In his last 13 starts the pitcher went 7-1 with a 2.73 ERA, and is 12-3 with a 2.31 ERA in his previous 22 starts dating all the way back to May 31.
He will finish the regular season with a 15-8 mark and a 3.41 ERA, with a 7-3 record and 2.86 ERA at Fenway. With the lefty going over 200 innings (203-1/3), Lester and Josh Beckett become the first lefty/righty tandem of Red Sox teammates to each toss 200 innings since Frank Viola (238 innings) and Roger Clemens (246-2/3) did it in 1992.
Lester also is one of just six left-handers in the last 20 seasons to record at least 15 wins with 200 innings and 200 strikeouts, joining Johan Santana (4 times), Randy Johnson (4), CC Sabathia (1), Barry Zito (1), and Chuck Finley (1).
“It really doesn’t mean anything unless we win a World Series,” Lester said. “The season was good. I’m happy with how I came back at the beginning of the season and got on a little bit of a roll and threw the ball better. But here, with this organization, our seasons are judged by what we do in the postseason, not what we do in the regular season. Hopefully we can get on a roll and play good baseball. We’ve got a tough opponent coming up and hopefully we can go forward.”
ANKLE, HIP NOT A CONCERN FOR LOWELL
The mound protruding from his left ankle following the Red Sox’ win was tough to miss.
On the third pitch — and first swing — Mike Lowell enjoyed since coming back after three days off, the third baseman fouled off a 91 mph fastball from Carlos Carrasco, managing a direct hit on the spot just above his lead foot. The pain was enough for Lowell to step out of the batter's box, eliciting a visit from manager Terry Francona and trainer Paul Lessard.
Lowell remained in the game, ultimately ending the at-bat by flying out to left field. As a precaution, he would get a postgame X-ray, which came out negative and allowed the 35-year-old to remain on schedule to serve as the designated hitter Friday night.
“I was a little scared at first,” Lowell said. “Then the game took over. I was a little nervous when I went in after the game. The doc hit a couple of pressure points and I told him it was a little sore. He was like, ‘Let’s get some X-rays’, but it was negative. I didn’t want to not get at-bats. That’s why I didn’t want to come out of the game. I think it’s important to get at-bats.”
Lowell, who plans on wearing a shin guard Friday, hadn’t participated in a game since getting a shot of Synvisc and cortisone in his surgically repaired right hip Monday. By all accounts, the shot paid off, with Lowell feeling like he operated with increased flexibility, as well as more mobility.
“I know it’s hard for me to say, but I thought I ran down the line pretty good on the last one,” he said after going 1-for-4. “I wasn’t worried about that. I thought I had more mobility in the hip, so I’m very satisfied from that standpoint. … I felt good. I almost felt like my hip was moving more than ever. That was a good sign.
“I don’t think I’m gaining any strength. I just think you relieve the fluid and get more mobility. Your stride gets a lot longer.”
GREEN STILL FIGHTING IT
Red Sox infielder Nick Green took ground balls with first base coach Tim Bogar prior to Thursday night’s game and came away still frustrated that his “dead” right leg hadn’t responded like he had hoped.
Green, whose leg problem was thought to be caused by a slipped disc in his back, said his right leg gave out a few times while taking grounders. He followed up the fielding exercises with a round of batting practice, which he also had taken Wednesday.
“It’s not where I want it to be,” Green said. “It’s getting better, but it’s still frustrating because it’s not where I want it to be.
“It doesn’t hurt, but it just doesn’t cooperate. It just doesn’t get up like it should. It wears out and is weak. It’s hard to describe because it doesn’t hurt. The more stuff I do, the more tired it gets.”
Green’s anxiety is heightened by the fact that time is ticking toward when the team has to make a decision on the postseason roster, and there is nothing the infielder can do to quicken the healing process.
“It’s not where I want it to be, by any stretch of the imagination. We’ll see how it is tomorrow. I can’t do anything to speed it up and that’s why it’s so frustrating because I can’t do anything to make it better more than what I’m doing.
“I get disappointed because I want it to be one way and it doesn’t react the way I want it to react. It doesn’t make sense to me.”
AND THERE WAS OTHER NEWS
- Tim Wakefield, who gave up five runs on seven hits over three innings Wednesday night, said that he was feeling the physical toll of throwing 76 pitches, and if he wasn’t going to make the postseason roster the pitcher would most likely immediately have surgery on his herniated disc.
- J.D. Drew was given the night off to rest his sore left shoulder, being replaced by Joey Gathright. It was only the third time in Gathright’s major league career he has played right field.
- Jacoby Ellsbury, who had three hits, notched his team-high 59th multi-hit game of the season, the most by a Red Sox center fielder since 1939 when Doc Cramer had 60.
- Jed Lowrie reported that his injured left wrist was a bit sore a day after hitting left-handed for the first time with the Red Sox in more than a month. Despite being somewhat tentative in his initial at-bat from the left side Wednesday night, the infielder felt he got through the experience in good shape, with his wrist fatiguing, however, in the last few at-bats. An encouraging sign for Lowrie has been his ability to not have to choke up on the bat from the left side to compensate for his injury, a practice he stopped approximately a week ago.