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Stress-free ninth innings await Phils

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- They look across their clubhouse on these sleepy Florida mornings. They're pretty sure they see Billy Wagner sitting there, wearing their uniform. They know they're officially awake. So they ask themselves, "How the heck did we ever get him?"

"I want to tell you something," Phillies reliever Rheal Cormier says. "I can't wait to see this guy throw. I just can't wait to see that 100 miles an hour coming out of our bullpen. I've never seen that before."

Well, that's not exactly true, of course. The Phillies have seen Billy Wagner obliterate fuses on those radar guns many times before. They just had to see it from the side nobody wants to be on -- the other side of the field.

"When you see it on the other side," Cormier says, "that's sickening."

Now, though, it isn't so sickening. Now, the man -- who is documentably the Most Dominating Left-handed Closer of All Time -- is on their side, thanks to a stunning three-for-one trade with Houston last November. And it's incredible how different the view of Billy Wagner -- and everything else -- looks to the Phillies now.

No doubt, the presence of Wagner is not the only reason the Phillies suddenly find themselves the favorite in the NL East. There are, obviously, several others:

Jim Thome still works there. David Bell's back has stopped throbbing. Pat Burrell can't possibly be that bad again. And once GM Ed Wade had finished reeling in his new closer last winter, he kept going -- signing Tim Worrell and Roberto Hernandez to set up for Wagner, not to mention trading for Eric Milton and re-signing Kevin Millwood to give the Phillies one of the NL's deepest rotations.

But it's amazing in baseball how the presence of one man can change everything. Just as A-Rod seems to change everything about the Yankees ... just as Greg Maddux seems to change everything about the Cubs ... the impact of Billy Wagner on the Phillies might represent the most dramatic difference in baseball this spring between what came before him and what figures to come after him.

For this team last year, you see, the games just seemed to last too long. About one inning too long, to be exact.

"We must have lost at least nine or 10 games in the last inning last year," says catcher Mike Lieberthal.

Well, it was more like 17 -- the fifth-most in the NL and the most of any team still alive in the playoff race in the final two weeks. Fourteen of those losses came in games in which the Phillies either held a lead or were tied in the ninth.

Incredibly, they still almost made the playoffs. Because, as you might recall, the team that won the World Series (the Marlins) actually trailed the Phillies in the standings with eight games left in the season.

The Phillies sure recall. But they also recall losing seven of those last eight games. So when October arrived, there were the Marlins, still playing. And there were the men who run the Phillies, doing what men do when seasons turn out like theirs did.

Holding a meeting.

It was one of those fly-to-Florida-and-figure-out-what-the-heck-went-wrong kind of meetings. But after meeting for about 30 seconds, they already knew exactly what went wrong. And what they needed to do about it.

This team needed a closer. Boy, did this team need a closer. More than Martha Stewart needs another stock tip. More than Paul Tagliabue needs another halftime act. More than J-Lo needs a new husband-to-be.

The previous closer, Jose Mesa, had just finished compiling a 6.52 ERA. That was merely the highest in history by any reliever who somehow saved 20 games.

Mesa's second-half ERA was an incomprehensible 10.50. Which, not surprisingly, forced the Phillies to just stop pitching him at all down the stretch. So in retrospect, it's amazing the Phillies won any games in September, let alone go 12-6 before that final-week meltdown.

Equally amazing is the thought that, as the Phillies poobahs headed for those October meetings, the biggest acquisition most of their fans seemed to think they needed at the time was a true No. 1 starter -- a Curt Schilling, a Javier Vazquez, a Bartolo Colon. But that was not the feeling as the brass gathered.

"I was dead set against that (No. 1 starter) from the beginning," says Phillies special advisor Dallas Green. "I told Ed, 'You've got to fix the bullpen. You can find a free-agent starter a hell of a lot easier than you can find a closer.'

"I still think championships are based on that. You can't committee it and expect to go through the playoffs and World Series. You can't win without somebody who the team knows that when the ninth inning arrives, the game's over. Hell, that's the thing that killed us. It wasn't the fact that Burrell didn't play up to his potential or because David Bell was hurt. We were right on the verge of winning -- and Mesa just let us down."

So right there in that meeting room, they started making a list of closers who might be available. Name No. 1 on that list was somebody named Wagner.

"I thought it was a long shot, getting a guy like Wagner," says manager Larry Bowa. "With a free agent, you have a chance, obviously. But to make a trade for a guy like that, I mean, you hope it happens. But those dreams don't usually come true."

Except this one did. Wade left the meeting, went right back to his hotel and called Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker. A week after the World Series, they had themselves a deal.

Now the Phillies can spend all spring contemplating this question: Could there have been much more difference between any two closers' seasons than there was between Wagner's and Mesa's?

  • In Mesa's final 17 appearances, he was scored on in seven. In Wagner's final 33 appearances, he was scored on in two.

  • Mesa's ERA after July 1 was 10.29. Wagner's ERA after July 1 was 0.92.

  • Mesa gave up 21 earned runs after the All-Star break (in just 18 innings). Wagner gave up 17 earned runs all season (in 86 innings).

  • The Phillies blew 18 of 51 save opportunities -- the second-worst conversion rate (behind St. Louis) of any NL contender. Wagner blew only three of 47 save opportunities -- none after July 1.

    "If we'd been more consistent, I don't think we'd have blown 18 saves," Bowa says. "I'm not here to bash Jose, because Jose gave me two years of outstanding relief pitching. ... But if we hadn't blown 18 saves, yeah, I think there's a good chance we'd have been playing (in October)."

    Well, history says there's a pretty decent chance that if Wagner had been the guy holding the ball, the Phillies wouldn't have blown 18. If you toss out 2000, when he tore a tendon in his elbow, Wagner has blown 18 of his last (gulp) 185 save opportunities.

    So you might say the Phillies will be able to tell the difference between him and just about anybody they've ever run out there in the ninth.

    Of the six relievers in Phillies history with 75 career saves or more, Wagner's lifetime ERA (2.53) is more than half a run lower than any of them. None are even close to his 9.67 baserunners per nine innings. (The last Phillie to try to close a World Series game, Mitch Williams, allowed 14.28 per nine innings.)

    And Wagner's career strikeout rate (12.38 per nine innings) is a ridiculous 41 percent higher than the best punchout master among those Phillies closers (Ricky Bottalico, at 8.78).

    "The amazing thing with him," Phillies starter Randy Wolf says of his new closer, "is, it's a 1-2-3 inning. There's no stress. Your nails stay on all your fingers."

    Wagner did, in fact, rip off 24 of those rarified 1-2-3 saves last season. Mesa had just nine -- and only one came after June 9.

    So if 1-2-3 is, in fact, Wagner's trademark, one man who won't complain is Bowa -- a guy who looked last year as if he'd rather have been blindfolded than have to sweat, pace, hyperventilate and (to pick a polite term) mutter his way through the ninth.

    Asked if he'd thought much about how his ninth innings might go this year, the manager chuckled: "Hopefully, give him the ball -- and just walk up the runway."

    About the only closers on earth whose save percentage, strikeout ratio and unhittability numbers remotely resemble Wagner's are John Smoltz, Trevor Hoffman and Eric Gagne, with Mariano Rivera right behind. But when Wagner hears that kind of talk, he starts shaking his head vociferously.

    "I'm not in their league," he says. "I'm not. Those guys are future Hall of Famers. I'm not in that category. I'm just a guy who goes out there and is as one-dimensional as can be. I've been lucky for eight years to have a good fastball and play with great teammates who always pick me up."

    Yeah, sure. So then he really doesn't want to hear that he's the most dominating left-handed closer ever. But he is Just check out this chart:

    "Personally, I don't want to hear that," Wagner says. "What motivates me is not being one of the greatest relievers or whatever. What motivates me is winning. Maybe when my career is over, then that will mean something. Then if somebody says, 'He was one of the greatest left-handed closers ever,' that's great. But right now, that's not what I play for."

    What he's playing for, he says, is to do what Rivera has gotten to do four different times -- throw the final pitch of a World Series and let the bedlam ensue.

    "I hope (that's) me," Wagner laughs. "I want (that to be) me. If the starter wants to go 8 2-3, that's fine. I just want to be the last guy standing out there when Lieberthal comes out and dirt-rolls me."

    Well, that's a dream everyone in Philadelphia can dream now that Billy Wagner is sitting around their spring-training clubhouse. And not just because of who he is.

    "There's one thing I don't know if a lot of people have noticed," says shortstop Jimmy Rollins. "Every time the Phillies have won, they had left-handed closers -- Tug (McGraw) in '80, Mitch (Williams) in '93 and now Billy. I don't know what that means. But whatever it means, I know we've got The Man to get us there."

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Jayson a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.