It was Sunday morning, a day after Chipper Jones beat Detroit with a three-run homer on a Joel Zumaya 100-mph fastball. The Braves third baseman and closer Billy Wagner were in the clubhouse, talking about homers and triple-digit heaters.
Two 38-year-old graybeards, swapping “war” stories like Hooper and Quint in the movie Jaws, just without blood and scars.
“If it’s straight enough, you can time a jet plane,” Jones said, referring to a baseball axiom about straight fastballs being hittable no matter the velocity.
“If it’s got a little sink to it, it’s a little tougher,” Jones said, smiling. “Ain’t that right, Wags?”
Wagner was at his locker a few feet away.
“Believe it,” Wagner said. “The harder you throw it, the farther it goes.”
Wagner can tell a story about as well as anyone in baseball, with passion and details.
Someone asked if Wagner ever gave up a homer on a 100-mph fastball.
“Vinny Castilla did it back-to-back nights to me,” Wagner said.
“Vinny could do it,” Jones said. “You couldn’t get a fastball by him.”
Wagner recalled facing Castilla in the late ’90s, when Wagner was with Houston and Castilla was one of Colorado’s Blake Street Bombers.
“I lost my closer role in ‘97 because of it,” Wagner said. “I had him 0-2, threw a fastball here [he motions up and in] at 100, he took me deep in the Astrodome.
“Next night, I rolled out there, had him 0-2, threw a pitch up in here [higher and in] to knock him back off the plate. Then I came back in here and he took me deep again. Thanks for coming, you just blew the game and lost your job. How’s that treat you?”
Wagner said both homers were on 100-mph fastballs (he threw that hard with regularity at that point in his career).
He was right about Castilla taking him deep twice in the ninth inning in 1997, both times with two outs in the final inning, both at the old Houston Astrodome, both in Colorado wins.
Wagner’s memory of the dates was a little off. Castilla hit a game-winning homer off him in the 10th inning on April 28, 1997, and a three-run game-winner off him in the ninth inning on Aug. 23, 1997.
But, hey, it was 13 years and a whole lot of games ago.
Wagner health update
After getting a cortisone injection near his sore left ankle Saturday night, Wagner pronounced himself fit to pitch after testing it out in the bullpen Sunday morning.
He gave manager Bobby Cox a thumbs-up as Wagner walked past him in the dugout before Sunday’s game, but Cox indicated he wasn’t sure if he’d use Wagner before checking to be sure the medical staff agreed.
Wagner has been bothered more than a week by soreness from an irritated nerve near the ankle. He recorded his 400th career save by striking out the side in the ninth inning Friday, but was unable to pitch Saturday because he couldn’t push off the rubber properly.
The Braves nearly blew a 4-1 lead in the ninth inning Saturday when Detroit got a homer and four consecutive walks against relievers Takashi Saito and Eric O’Flaherty.