Can Billy Wagner Close a Big Game?

It is not surprising that Billy Wagner pitched a 1-2-3 ninth to save New York’s 10-8 victory over Cincinnati Thursday night. After all, since coming to the Mets, Wagner has been one of the most automatic closers in baseball, converting 87 percent of his save opportunities. To put that in perspective, just under 60 percent of all save opportunities were converted in the National League in 2008’s first half.

But Wagner seems to have his greatest difficulty in games with either higher stakes, or even higher perceived stakes, as he showed Tuesday night, allowing the tying run in the eighth inning of the All Star Game. The quality of the batter doesn’t seem to matter, either—merely the situation.

From the 2006 postseason, to his difficulties during the 2007 collapse, and even games early in 2008 that the Mets have needed to turn the page on 2007, he has been most vulnerable when the Mets have needed a clean inning most. Wagner’s tremendous percentage of success should help the Mets get into position for the postseason—but his failures in big spots may be what ultimately denies it to them.

Wagner was signed by the Mets prior to the 2006 season, with New York hoping he would provide a huge upgrade over the previous closer, Braden Looper. And from a statistical standpoint, the improvement couldn’t be clearer. Looper’s 2005 ERA was 3.94; Wagner’s 2006 mark was 2.24. Looper struck out 27 batters in 59 1/3 innings; Wagner struck out 94 in 72 innings. And Looper saved 28 games in 36 opportunities, or just under 78 percent; Wagner saved 40 in 45 opportunities, or just under 89 percent.

But Wagner’s problems in high-profile situations began to manifest themselves early in 2006. In a Saturday afternoon game against the Yankees on national television, Wagner, handed a 4-0 lead, had a complete meltdown. He walked three hitters—to put that in perspective, he walked a total of 21 hitters all year. The Yankees tied the game, winning in extra innings.

Wagner was nearly perfect for the remainder of the 2006 regular season, though it can be argued that the Mets hardly played a meaningful game all year—New York had a six-game lead in the National League East by May 1, and a double-digit lead from June 22 on.

But his Game 1 performance in the National League Division Series against the Dodgers provided an unwelcome preview of his failures ahead. Wagner, handed a 6-4 lead, allowed doubles to Wilson Betemit and Ramon Martinez, the former feeble against lefties, the latter generally feeble. He struck out Nomar Garciaparra to preserve the win, but was certainly shaky. He did close out Game 2 and Game 3, though he had three- and four-run cushions, respectively.

In the National League Championship Series, however, Wagner was horrible. In three games, Wagner allowed five runs, seven hits and a walk in 2 2/3 innings for a 16.88 ERA. He allowed a home run to So Taguchi, who had two home runs all season. Wagner, who has averaged nearly 12 strikeouts per nine innings in his career, did not strike out a single batter. Even in his Game 1 save, he issued a walk to bring up the tying run. Wagner’s overall postseason ERA is 8.71—his regular season ERA is 2.40.

The following season was more of the same. His overall numbers for 2007 were fantastic—2.63 ERA, 80 strikeouts against 22 walks in 68 1/3 innings, and 34 saves in 39 opportunities. But the only two months Wagner had an ERA over 2.19 were September, at 3.60, and August, at 6.23. During a period from June 15 to August 10, Wagner gave up no runs—except two in the eighth inning of the 2007 All Star Game, providing the American League with the final margin of victory. Wagner’s career All Star Game ERA, incidentally, is 10.80.

He was perfect in his first 13 save opportunities—then blew his first in a critical game against Philadelphia on June 7. His control betrayed him during a wild 11-10 loss against Philadelphia on August 30—in 1 1/3 innings, Wagner allowed two walks, four hits and three runs. And of course, during the fateful collapse, Wagner allowed runs in three of his final four appearances, putting up a clean inning only in a September 28 game against Florida, when he entered a game New York was already losing, 7-4.

In 2008, Wagner has had a sufficiently successful season to earn a spot on the All Star team once again. But earlier this season, when the pressure was greatest on Willie Randolph, Wagner hastened the manager’s departure. He did not allow his first earned run or home run until May 23—giving up a ninth-inning lead when the Mets were attempting to end a four-game losing streak that followed Willie Randolph’s comments that suggested he received unfavorable media coverage due to his race.

A few weeks later, as calls for Randolph to get fired reached their peak, Wagner, over a three-game span, allowed two home runs, then walked a pair of hitters in three appearances from June 8 through June 12. The first of the three blown games consigned the Mets to a four-game sweep against the lowly Padres; the middle game cost Wagner’s friend Mike Pelfrey a chance at his first victory in two months; the third game cost the Mets a series win against the Diamondbacks, and denied Johan Santana a victory after the starter pitched seven shutout innings, striking out ten. Less than a week later, Randolph was no longer manager.

Wagner’s most recent hiccup came in a pair of games against the Phillies. Though the Mets went on to win both games, a loss in either would have been devastating to New York. On July 6, following a nearly three-hour rain delay, Wagner allowed three hits and two runs to get the Phillies even in the ninth. The Mets went on to win the game in 12, 4-2.

The next day, New York nearly gave away a 10-1 lead. Wagner came on in the ninth, with the Mets ahead 10-7 and needing three outs for a series victory at Philadelphia. Wagner allowed a double to Shane Victorino. Next up would have been Chase Utley, but Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel, thinking the game was over, had replaced Utley with the light-hitting Eric Bruntlett. No worries—Wagner promptly walked him. Keep in mind, Wagner has walked just nine hitters all season.

Wagner went on to allow a pair of runs before preserving a 10-9 victory. But once again, Wagner had been shaky when the Mets needed him most. And since the start of the 2007 season, when the Phillies have been New York’s biggest rival, Wagner has a 4.61 ERA against Philadelphia. He’s walked 6 in 13 2/3 innings against the Phillies—and 25 in 94 2/3 against everyone else.

Ultimately, teams can win the World Series with closers less reliable than Mariano Rivera, much to the Yankees’ chagrin. Florida’s closer in 2003 was the forgettable Ugueth Urbina, while Arizona weathered a pair of Byung-Hyun Kim meltdowns to outlast the Yankees in seven games.

Wagner’s ability to close games is a huge advantage for New York over the season’s final 66 games. But the Mets, who are now tied for first place, need to rely on him in critical contests—such as the eight games left against Philadelphia, including three next week at Shea.

Which Billy Wagner will show up? Can Billy Wagner Close a Big Game?