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October 11, 2010

On the Beat

Billy The Kid's Last Stand

by John Perrotto

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The most endearing thing about Billy Wagner is that he has had a special career yet never considered himself special. Now that the Braves closer's career might be over, Wagner still isn't all that impressed with himself.

Wagner was placed on the disabled list by the Braves on Sunday before they lost to the Giants in Game Three to fall behind two games to one in their National League Division Series. He strained an oblique muscle in Game Two. Under Major League Baseball rules, Wagner will also have to sit out the National League Championship Series if the Braves make a comeback. Even then, his status for the World Series would be quite iffy.

If this is the end for Wagner, he will finish his career with 422 saves, fifth on the all-time list. Saves are certainly not the greatest indicator of a reliever's performance, but Wagner has contributed 50.8 WARP during his 16-year career. Yet when asked if he had thought about what his legacy might be, Wagner basically shrugged.

"We're only playing baseball," Wagner said. "We're not changing anybody's lives. I've enjoyed it. It's allowed me to really do a lot of things for my family and for my community. But as far as looking back and trying to dig myself a little bit, I don't do that."

Wagner certainly is going out on a high note as his 6.3 WARP this season represents a career high. It came after he was limited to 15 2/3 innings last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. While the perfect way for Wagner to go out would be with his first World Series appearance, he doesn't feel he necessarily needs a fairy tale ending.

"I've had a great career and I don't need to define my career by having a successful season," Wagner said. "We all would like to draw it up as having a World Series and everybody dog pile on us, but that doesn't happen all the time. I'm here now to support my teammates and ride coattails and do whatever to get a World Series ring. That is honestly one of the reasons that I came back for this season. Everybody's asked me all year why am I retiring. Well, it didn't have anything to do with whether I pitched well or didn't pitch well, it was to go out to compete and have a chance to win a ring. Maybe it's not going to happen the way I want it to, and that's just life."

The Braves were unable to close out Game Three on Sunday without Wagner as the Giants rallied with two runs in the top of the ninth inning for a 3-2 victory at Turner Field. Rookie Craig Kimbrel took the loss, though the winning run scored on second baseman Brooks Conrad's third error of the game.

Despite Kimbrel's hiccup, Wagner believes the 22-year-old rookie is the natural choice to replace him as the Braves' closer. Kimbrel struck out 40 of the 88 batters he faced in the regular season, an amazing 45 percent, while contributing 1.7 WARP in just 20 2/3 innings.

"The hardest person to hit is somebody that gets a lot of swinging misses," Wagner said. "He has a rising fastball, and his breaking ball has been probably a little better than what everybody had expected. He's commanded it really well, so he's become very dangerous. He can throw ahead in the count and he can throw for a swing and missed pitch, too. So it kind of gives you that two-headed monster when he's out there."

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In a sense, Rangers manager Ron Washington is the new Charlie Manuel. Seemingly nobody took Manuel, the Phillies' manager, seriously until he won a World Series in 2008.

Instead, the critics focused on Manuel's slow-talking way, his speech not always mirroring the King's English and heavy with a Virginia drawl. Washington is looked upon the same way as he is known to occasionally misspeak in his native New Orleans accent.

However, Washington, in his fourth season with the Rangers, began preparing for the job back in 1970 when the Royals signed him as an undrafted free agent from John McDonogh High School in New Orleans. The Royals had what was at the time a revolutionary idea in which they would sign raw athletes and try to develop them into baseball players at what they called the Royals' Academy in Fort Myers, Florida.

Washington learned the game at the academy from such player development gurus as Steve Boros, Syd Thrift, and Buzzy Keller. Washington did not make his major league debut until 1977 with the Dodgers, then did not return to the bigs until spending six seasons with the Twins from 1981-86, playing for managers Billy Gardner and Tom Kelly.

"That academy was all about one thing, the game of baseball fundamentally and I ended up being around a lot of people that thought the same thing," Washington said. "The Dodgers always believed in fundamentals and the Twins always have preached playing the game the way it's presented and you don't get too far outside of what has to be done."

Washington did not manage his first major league game until less than a month before his 55th birthday. There was fear that his career would crumble this year in spring training when word leaked to the media that Washington had failed a drug test last season after using cocaine and turned himself in to Major League Baseball.

However, team president Nolan Ryan and general manager Jon Daniels stuck by Washington and he wound up leading the Rangers to their first American League West title since 1999. The Rangers are tied two games apiece with the Rays in the American League Division Series with the decisive Game Five set for Tuesday night at Tropicana Field.

"Just like I am sure managers like to see progression in their players, I've got to see that with Wash and it is great to see," Rangers third baseman Michael Young said. "Wash is someone who commands respect from the players, makes good decisions in general, and is loyal. From a player's standpoint, I can't ask for much more than that."

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The Twins making a quick exit from the postseason has become as much a part of the October calendar as Columbus Day and Halloween. The Twins' post-season losing streak reached 12 on Saturday night when they were beaten by the Yankees, ending a three-game sweep in their ALDS.

The Twins are one short of the record of 13 straight playoff losses, established by the Red Sox from 1986-95. All 12 losses have been to the Yankees in the ALDS in 2004, 2006, 2009, and 2010. However, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire disputes the idea that his team suffers from October stage fright or is intimidated by playing the Yankees.

"Right now, we're in a little rut," Gardenhire said. "We can't seem to put it together. Once we get into the playoffs, we're playing pretty good baseball teams. And you have to be at your best. We clinched early. We thought we would be able to get everybody healthy. We had some guys still beat up. Guys had to sit out for five, six days trying to get healthy. I don't think their swings came back to them, a couple of guys. We battled through that. No excuses. We just didn't get it done. We haven't got it done. And we have to do some more searching here in trying to figure out how to get it done because we definitely, definitely can do it."

It has been suggested that the Twins do not have the dominant starting pitching needed to shut down the Yankees' powerful lineup. Game One starter Francisco Liriano averaged 9.44 strikeouts per nine innings this season, but Game Two starter Carl Pavano had just a 4.76 mark and Brian Duensing, who pitched Game Three, punched out only 5.37 per nine.

"People say we lose because we don't have power pitchers, but I think our pitchers do just fine," Gardenhire said. "We just didn't really give them much support. I like our pitchers. I like the way they go about their business. Everybody would like a power pitcher. Everybody in baseball is always searching for No. 1, No. 2 starters. We think Francisco Liriano, as he gets farther and farther away from that (Tommy John) surgery (in 2006), is going to get better and better. He can be that. Power pitchers in the playoffs are a good thing a lot of times. But you work with what you have. And we're pretty proud of our guys, actually."

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MLB Rumors & Rumblings: Gardenhire, whose contract expires at the end of next season, is expected to agree on an extension with the Twins this week. … The Yankees are undecided if they will use four starters in the American League Championship Series and if A.J. Burnett would be the fourth starter behind CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, and Phil Hughes or they would give Javier Vazquez or rookie Ivan Nova a shot. … The Red Sox' decision to try to re-sign third baseman Adrian Beltre hinges on whether they can acquire a first baseman and move Kevin Youkilis to third. … The latest candidates to replace retiring Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston are former major league managers Bob Melvin and Eric Wedge, Cubs interim manager Mike Quade, Angels bench coach Ron Roenicke, and Luis Rivera, manager of Toronto's Double-A New Hampshire farm club. … Melvin is considered the favorite to become the Brewers' next manager.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

Related Content:  Managers Of The Year,  Washington

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