The Buffalo Bisons were nursing a 2-1 lead when Neil Wagner was called into the game. There were two outs and a runner on first. Wagner quickly and calmly struck out Josh Harrison on three straight pitches to end the scoring threat.
He returned to the mound in the top of the ninth and issued a lead-off walk. But that baserunner was dispensed of when his attempt to steal second failed. Wagner struck out the next two batters.
Four batters faced. Four outs. Three by strikeout. It added up to Wagner’s 12th save of the season and a 2-1 win for the Bisons over the Indianapolis Indians at Coca-Cola Field Saturday afternoon.
Wagner has been incredibly impressive for the Herd this season. His ERA dropped to 0.90 and his dozen saves rank second in the International League.
But Wagner had to reinvent himself in certain ways over the offseason in order to set himself up for this success.
Two years ago, he made his Major League debut, appearing in six games as a middle reliever with Oakland.
Then things faltered a bit last season in the Pacific Coast League when he played with Tucson and Sacramento, where he made 46 combined appearances with his ERA hovering around 5.44.
In November he signed as a free agent with the Toronto Blue Jays and made a few changes in spring training.
“Last year for whatever reason things just never kind of meshed. I kind of struggled the whole year,” Wagner said. “But I refocused this offseason ... and things have come together. I scrapped my curveball. I came into camp with it and the slider was good so I just kind of scrapped the curve midstream. The slider is my go-to pitch now.”
Along with giving up the curveball, Wagner returned to a practice he learned while with the Oakland A’s – he keeps a book on hitters in the league and charts games in the bullpen.
“I figured I’d just do it on my own in addition to what we get from the coaching staff and other players,” Wagner said. “Even if I don’t specifically see anything, charting the game down there helps keep me engaged in watching the game and seeing what’s going on.”
Wagner feels comfortable in his role as a closer, something he hasn’t done regularly since playing in Single-A ball in 2006 and 2007. But it’s a role he’s familiar with, having been a closer in both high school and at North Dakota State.
While it’s likely the Blue Jays will come calling soon, it probably won’t be to close out games. Toronto’s already set with Casey Janssen in that spot. But Wagner isn’t concerned with where he might get work.
“Closing is definitely a good role to be in. You get good innings. You know when you’re going to pitch. ... You get to see as many hitters as you possibly can before you go in,” Wagner said. “At the same time, you’re not going to go from being the closer in Buffalo to being the closer in Toronto. So you have to prepare yourself to take on another role.
“When you’re called into the game, the light goes on. You just pitch. That’s all you can do. I’ve gotten some multiple-inning stints here, so there’s a little versatility. But you can’t worry about what your role in the big leagues is going to be.”
It’s one of the oddest stats in the International League standings. Of the 14 teams in the league, nine have better records on the road than at home. And this is already a third of the way through the season.
Of the six teams in the Bisons’ division, the IL North, five of them have better road records heading into Saturday’s games.
The Herd is 15-7 on the road this year but just 12-13 at Coca-Cola Field.
Other teams with better road records include Pawtucket, Lehigh Valley, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Syracuse, Charlotte, Gwinnett, Columbus and Louisville.
Syracuse has the biggest discrepancy, going 15-9 on the road but just 5-18 at home through Saturday’s games.
Saturday’s paid attendance was 6,649 with an estimated 350 dogs in attendance as the park hosted Dog Day at the Ballpark. ... The Blue Jays recalled righty Thad Weber from Buffalo and optioned Sean Nolin to Double-A New Hampshire. Weber was scheduled to start for the Herd today. Instead, it will be righty Dave Bush (4-4, 5.23) against righty Brooks Brown (3-0. 3.72) as the teams conclude their series (1:05 p.m., TWSN, Radio 1520 AM). ... The Bisons leave for an eight-game road trip, starting at Durham on Monday and continuing in Norfolk.