Down to the last four outs of Sunday’s game, and perhaps not only the career of manager Bobby Cox but retiring closer Billy Wagner, nobody wanted the ball more.
For the first time all season, Wagner came in the game with more than three outs to get. He made it interesting – giving up three runs on back-to-back RBI hits in the eighth – but he made it last.
Wagner struck out the last four hitters he faced, including the side in order in the ninth looking, when any one swing could have meant at least a tie game.
Wagner got his 37th save of the season in the 8-7 win. Afterward he handed the ball to Cox. They both could have another day.
“Don’t think that didn’t run through my head out there,” Wagner said when asked about the possibility of throwing the last pitches of his career. “You screw this up and go home and always be a goat. I was happy to go out there and compete and make some pitches and have another day to go out there and sweat.”
He struggled to command his fastball at first. “The ball wanted to cut and run,” he said. But by the ninth, he figured out how to use the late afternoon shadows to his advantage. Wagner got ahead of each of the three hitters, and struck them all out looking at his slider.
“They could see the fastball but they couldn’t see spin of the breaking ball,” Wagner said. “The only thing I had to do was execute throwing it for a strike.”
Wagner threw 21 pitches in the eighth inning after getting Raul Ibanez to strike out for the third out. That was only 11 shy of his season-high. But there was no doubt he was going back out for the ninth, especially considering he’d had three days’ rest.
“You would have been getting a new manager,” Cox said. “I would have been dead if I had told him he wasn’t going back out there.”
Wagner laughed when told about Cox’s estimation.
“I probably didn’t do a good job,” Wagner said. “I probably won’t ever get back in there now.”
He’d inherited only seven runners all season, but he had two on the corners waiting for him in the eighth. But Wagner relished the chance to go “long.”
“That’s the closer’s job,” Wagner said. “That’s my situation.”
But he couldn’t resist another self-effacing jab: “You know what, it’s probably a good situation that we had a big enough lead that I couldn’t screw it up too bad.”