- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 11, 2007

VERO BEACH, Fla. — He looked like a throwaway in an otherwise blockbuster eight-player trade. Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez were the big names who came to Washington in July.

Ryan Wagner? His name barely came up when Nationals general manager Jim Bowden dealt away Gary Majewski, Bill Bray and three others to the Cincinnati Reds during the 2006 All-Star break.

Bowden, though, was adamant Wagner be included in the deal. He had drafted the right-hander three years before and knew about his potential. And he knew Wagner could become almost as valuable to his team as Kearns and Lopez.

“You know, it’s tough to give up two quality pitchers like Majewski and Bray, but the feeling was from our perspective that Wagner could replace one of the two,” Bowden said yesterday. “And then you also get Kearns and Lopez, and that’s why the deal makes sense. I felt it was a good deal because we were getting three solid big league players.”

Eight months later, Bowden looks omniscient. Kearns and Lopez have indeed become key cogs in the Nationals’ lineup, and Wagner has become a key contributor to their bullpen and figures to be one of their primary setup men when they break camp.

The hard-throwing right-hander was a pleasant surprise during his two months in the big leagues last fall, and he’s off to a solid start this spring. He threw two scoreless innings and recorded three strikeouts in a “B” game yesterday morning in Viera and, combined with his official Grapefruit League appearances, now has six strikeouts in four innings.

Wagner’s performance has manager Manny Acta considering him for an important role in the Washington bullpen: sharing setup duties with Jon Rauch while Luis Ayala is brought back slowly from elbow surgery.

“He’s got some power stuff with serious movement,” Acta said. “If he can harness all that, he’s going to be big-time up here.”

So how did a seemingly washed-up prospect with a 6.34 ERA at Class AAA Louisville become a trusted setup man in eight months? The Nationals and Wagner believe it was simple: He just needed to start throwing sidearm again.

That twisting, gunslinging throwing motion is what persuaded Bowden (then the Reds’ GM) to make Wagner the 14th overall pick in the 2003 draft, then promote him to the majors after only nine minor league appearances. The initial results were staggering: Wagner went 2-0 with a 1.66 ERA in 17 relief appearances with Cincinnati that season.

Bowden, though, wasn’t around to see it. He was fired in the middle of the summer, and by the 2004 season, the Reds had changed Wagner’s motion, moving his arm angle to the more conventional over-the-top position. The results were disastrous. Wagner’s ERA rose to 4.70 in 2004, then 6.11 in 2005. His confidence was shot.

“I was in Triple-A,” he said. “I was struggling. I was trying to work with a new arm angle. It was bad news. I was miserable.”

Then the phone rang July 13, and Wagner learned he had been traded to Washington. Kearns and Lopez were stunned by the news and admittedly took months to get comfortable with their new surroundings. Wagner was ecstatic.

“As soon as the trade happened, it was almost like a relief,” he said.

Wagner was initially sent to Class AAA New Orleans, but he was quickly called up to Washington so he could work with pitching coach Randy St. Claire. The two looked at some old video of Wagner from his successful days and decided it was time for the hurler to start throwing from the side again.

“He had success like that,” St. Claire said. “That’s the way he naturally throws. So why do you want to change somebody that naturally throws like that? I just figured, ‘Hey, go back to what you were doing.’ ”

Wagner dropped down and immediately felt like himself again. His fastball exploded out of his hand. His slider became devastating. And his confidence returned.

Wagner believes that, more than anything, has turned his career back around. When he struggled in Cincinnati, he said there were few coaches or club officials offering support. As soon as he arrived in Washington, he said he knew people believed in him.

“You have to have confidence or you’re going to get killed out there,” he said. “But when you know you have people who are pulling for you and are on your side rooting for you, that just helps everything.”

Notes — Acta and St. Claire have not finalized their rotation for the rest of the week, but St. Claire said he plans to give all of his pitchers tomorrow off (the club’s lone day without a game this spring). John Patterson was scheduled to pitch in a minor league game, but now he will be bumped back. …

Acta said he will make his second round of cuts today, and several struggling contenders for rotation spots could be on the way out.

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