07/14/2003 6:54 PM ET
Wagner enjoys All-Star experience
CHICAGO -- Billy Wagner, a three-time All-Star, knows that he is not the featured headliner in the National League bullpen this year. No, not with closers like John Smoltz and Eric Gagne jumping into the mix.
And that's just fine with Wagner. This way, he'll have more time to get into the heads of two of the best closers in the Major Leagues, two former starting pitchers who are nearing his career save total in less than half the time.
"I'd like to talk to Smoltz because he's pitched in a lot of big games, starting and closing." Wagner said. "You see as successful as he's been as a starting pitcher and now you bring him in the ninth inning where there's a lot more pressure. He's pitched in the World Series. He's pitched in these big games. But the ninth inning is not a big thing for him. It's just another inning for him and he makes it look easy. With what he brings to the table, he should."
By Alyson Footer / MLB.com
But he does think he has a couple of experiences to share with Smoltz, who has yet to significantly suffer from one element in the life of a closer: blown saves.
"I don't think he's blown enough saves to know what it feels like," Wagner said with a chuckle. "He's a tremendous pitcher.
I've been out there enough now that it's not the end of the world to me. I've blown enough to know that the sun comes up the next morning."
The sun has shone plenty of days during Wagner's eight-year career. He passed the 200-save mark earlier in the season, and with 25 saves heading into the All-Star break, the left-hander is on pace to break his own club record of 39, set in both 1999 and 2001 -- not so coincidentally, his other two All-Star years.
Wagner, the Astros' lone All-Star, is just happy to be here. And he's honored that he was chosen by his own peers as opposed to a manager who has seen him pitch only a few times in the past.
"It's a bigger honor this year than ever," he said. "Just having the players vote me in. For me, I don't care about anybody liking me or not liking me. To be voted in by your colleages, that's a lot of respect and that's what I cherish."
With the firepower that will occupy the visitors' bullpen at U.S. Cellular Field, Wagner realizes he probably will serve as a setup man for Gagne or Smoltz, or both. Such details do not matter to the left-hander. He's here to have fun and plans to do so, in addition to not slipping up on the mound.
That would apply to any game regular season or exhibition, one that counts in the standings or one that determines where the World Series starts this year.
"The one thing you don't want to do, just like when I pitch in a regular game, is I don't want to embarrass myself," he said. "I'll go out there and I'll be nevous as usual. The whole home-field (advantage) won't affect me."
Wagner, well-liked among his Major League peers, was in a good mood Monday following a series win over the Pittsburgh Pirates that gave the Astros 50 wins heading into the break. Houston is in first place in the National League Central race, one game ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals and three up on the Chicago Cubs.
"It beats last year," Wagner said, referring to the Astros' 41-45 record at the break. "We made a run, but we were so exhausted by the end that we couldn't do much. This year we're in good shape, we're in the hunt."
And understandably, he's a little weary of hearing that no team in the NL Central "wants" to win the division title.
"I don't think it's an issue of does anyone want to win it," he said. "You've got four tough teams and when you have that type of division, you're not going to have a huge lead. You're going to have to scrape and battle. You hear about the Central being the weakest division, but I can't sit here and look at us and Cubs and say we're weak. We've got a pretty good team."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.