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Ready-made Wagner rides heavy heater to Cincinnati

February 14, 2004
By John Manuel

Ryan Wagner politely answered the same question from a different reporter for probably the 50th time. When you get from college (in his case, Houston) to the major leagues in 46 days, you’re going to get asked: What’s the biggest difference you’ve seen between colleges and the major leagues?

“I’ve been asked that a lot,” he said, readying his practiced answer, “and I’d say that in college, you can fall behind a hitter two-and-oh, and you can still get a guy out with a good pitch. But in the major leagues, you can’t get away with an average pitch at any time. You really need to make a good pitch or a great pitch almost all the time.”

Perhaps it was Wagner’s inexperience, but in his sixth game as a major leaguer, he got away with getting behind 2-and-0 against a pretty fair hitter. It was to the first batter he faced on Aug. 2, when his Reds were playing the visiting Giants in front of 36,682 at the Great American Ball Park.

“I had to get ready pretty quickly,” Wagner said. “I was just warming up on the mound, and then the ball went down to second. And I got the ball back and finally looked up to the on-deck circle to see who I was facing. And Barry Bonds is coming to the plate.

“I just thought, ‘No way.’ ”

Wagner said he almost immediately got behind 2-0 after “barely” missing with a pair of fastballs. He then dared to come inside on Bonds with a 2-0 fastball, and the future Hall of Famer grounded out to shortstop Rainer Olmedo, playing to the right of the bag on the shift, for the first out.

Wagner probably learned his lesson later in that game. He gave up a pair of solo home runs to Benito Santiago and Andres Galarraga in his two innings of work, but the Reds countered to help him get his first major league victory. It came just less than two months to the day from when the Reds made Wagner their first-round pick, the 14th selection overall.

“It was a great feeling to get to the major leagues, as you’d expect,” he said. “To get there so fast when so many guys spend a lot of time in the minors, there was no way I expected that.”

K King

Wagner hasn’t had a conventional career, though, and he’s an unconventional prospect. He spent just two seasons in college, as his birthday (July 15) was just inside the 45-day window after the draft necessary to make him eligible as a sophomore.

He served as Houston’s set-up man in 2002 as starter Brad Sullivan (a 2003 first-round pick of the Athletics) and closer Jesse Crain (a 2002 Twins second-rounder) received most of the attention. Wagner had a strong freshman season in the support role and scouts watching Crain and Sullivan took notice.

With Crain gone, Wagner took over as closer in 2003 and exploded on the national scene by setting an NCAA record for strikeouts per nine innings, averaging 16.8 by fanning 148 in just 79 innings.

After Houston was bounced from the postseason by eventual national champion Rice, Wagner took his wicked stuff to pro ball, striking out 10 in nine minor league innings between Double-A Chattanooga and Triple-A Louisville, before registering an additional 25 K’s in 22 big league innings. The Reds shut him down at that point to rest his arm after more than 110 cumulative innings.

Major League Stuff

Throughout the season, he maintained a 90-94 mph fastball with excellent sink and boring action in to righthanded hitters, and a devastating slider that never fails to elicit a descriptive adjective. New Reds general manager Dan O’Brien, who saw Wagner pitch while working with the Rangers organization in 2003, tried to be restrained in his praise of the rookie’s repertoire.

“He’s got two plus pitches. His fastball has significant life, and generally speaking it will produce groundballs. And his power slider,” he said, laughing, “it’s a definite plus pitch against lefthanded or righthanded hitters, but especially against righthanders.”

Wagner throws from a low three-quarters arm angle that he worked on with late Cougars pitching coach Bragg Stockton, who died early in the 2003 season. Stockton honed Wagner’s mechanics and command, helping him finish pitches better and improving his velocity.

Now Wagner has returned to throwing the four-seam fastball he used in high school. “I haven’t put a gun on myself,” he said, “but it feels like I’m throwing harder than ever now.”

Wagner’s arm angle and lack of an offspeed pitch, plus his durable 6-foot-4, 210-pound build, profile him best as a relief pitcher, and his rapid ascent to Cincinnati dashed any ideas of trying him as a starter. O’Brien said if the Reds’ pitching goes according to plan—admittedly not a common occurrence—Wagner would work as a set-up man in front of righthanders Chris Reitsma and Danny Graves in 2004. With Wagner’s stuff, though, expect the roles to reverse ahead of schedule.

“It’s going to make a huge difference for me this year in that I’ve already had some experience in the major leagues,” Wagner said. “I’m already going in confident. Last year, I hadn’t proven myself, hadn’t proved that I belonged. This year, I’m just going to go in and throw.”

As Bonds saw firsthand, that approach serves Wagner well.

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