Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Smoltz not Wagner's first brush with greatness

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Mark Wagner tried to play it cool.

"Any butterflies tonight?" he was asked.

"Why's that?" he deadpanned.

"You know, with the guy you've got throwing to you."


Then he broke into a grin.

"No, I'm kidding," he said.

Wagner, the starting catcher for the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs, sat down with John Smoltz earlier this afternoon to devise a game plan for the future Hall of Famer's second rehab start. Smoltz threw 29 pitches for Single-A Greenville on Thursday and is expected to throw somewhere around 50 pitches for the Sea Dogs today.

Wagner, considered the top defensive catcher in the Red Sox system, will be in charge of handling Smoltz behind the plate.

"The No. 1 priority is to take care of John -- he's got to get his work in and go up and help the big-league club win," he said. "Hopefully, I can learn a lot about how he wants to pitch. We've already broken down a bit of a game plan, and the blood's definitely flowing. I've got a little bit of a heartbeat."

But Smoltz actually isn't the first Hall of Fame-caliber pitcher the 24-year-old prospect has caught.

Wagner caught Nolan Ryan, he of the 5,714 career strikeouts, at a fundraiser at Cal-Irvine during his freshman year of college. Ryan was well into his mid-50s at the time -- he's 62 now -- but still "could bring it when he wanted to," Wagner said.

"He told me that if anybody put a bat on it, ... he was going to wink and then turn it up a little bit," said Wagner, who's hitting .314 in 70 at-bats with the Sea Dogs this season despite missing two weeks with a hamstring strain. "It was one of the heavier baseballs I ever caught in my life."

One of the dignitaries who was hitting against Ryan actually did foul off a pitch midway through the exhibition. The crowd went wild at the sigh -- and that's when old Nolan Ryan turned into classic Nolan Ryan.

"His competitive side came out," he said. "He gave me a little nod and wink, and he turned it up a little bit."

What happened after that?

"They no longer put wood on it, that's for sure," Wagner said.

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