NEW YORK -- On most days, Billy Wagner leaves a wake of laughter as he crosses the Mets clubhouse, teasing teammates, poking fun at the music, prodding the media. At other times, he has been known to cause a wave of controversy with his blunt candor.
Neither personality was on display Tuesday as Wagner made a silent, final walk to his locker this season -- the brim of a blue 2008 All-Star cap pulled low shielding his eyes -- knowing that the recovery from Tommy John surgery on Wednesday will be the greatest test of his 14-year career.
Wagner said he was "still shocked" by the news that he would need reconstructive elbow surgery during a tearful press conference. But he asserted that with the support of his family and with several career goals still on his mind -- 420 saves and a World Series title -- that he would be back -- with the Mets or another team -- after a rehabilitation that would likely keep him sidelined for at least a year.
"There's no other way to face this but as a challenge. I have to go out there and challenge to get back. And it will be a challenge to go out there and compete," Wagner said. "This whole thing. My age, everything's a challenge.
"What else do I do? My kids want me to play. My wife wants me to play. I want to play."
The Mets entered Tuesday's game against the Washington Nationals with a 1½-game lead over the Phillies in the NL East. Manager Jerry Manuel knows the team faces it's own challenge over the final three weeks without its closer, even though New York was 22-11 in Wagner's absence.
"With him coming back would have been a tremendous boost for us coming down the stretch because we had some people pitch in tough, tough situations. And to have him back, whether he was a hundred percent or not would have probably solidified us," Manuel said. "So to lose him for the rest of the year is a big blow for us."
The 37-year-old Wagner was 0-1 with a 2.30 ERA and 27 saves in 34 chances.
In the third year of a four-year, $43 million contract, Wagner has not pitched since Aug. 2. Mets general manager Omar Minaya said Monday that an MRI on Aug. 5 showed a small tear, but the Mets described the injury as a strained left forearm.
During his rehab the arm got worse despite two weeks of mostly rest, and elbow swelling forced the team to put off activating Wagner during a trip to Pittsburgh in mid-August.
Wagner tested the arm Sunday at Shea Stadium by facing teammate Gustavo Molina, and he walked off the field after hitting the reserve catcher on the left foot with his 13th pitch. It was then that Wagner knew he was done -- an MRI on Monday showed the torn medial collateral ligament had worsened to the point of requiring surgery.
"That one pitch took care of everything," Wagner said.
Stunned by the news, Wagner talked about his options with his wife Sarah and four children. Recalling the reaction of his oldest son, 10-year-old William James, brought Wagner to tears.
"Will, he was upset," said Wagner, who then took a long pause, wiping tears from his eyes. "He's not ready. He's not ready for it to be over."
The six-time All-Star with 385 career saves knows that he will not be the power pitcher that he was before the injury, but he is determined to return at a level that will allow him to surpass 400 saves and help a team win a World Series title.
"I honestly, without a doubt will be back," he said.
And Wagner isn't certain it will be with the Mets, who hold an $8 million option for 2010. He sure doesn't expect the team to wait for him when they could sign a top closer such as the Angels' Francisco Rodriguez, a free agent after the season.
"If they didn't they would be stupid," Wagner said. "I'm not going to pitch next year. We're trying to win. I think trying to play the ego thing is stupid."
For this season, though, the Mets will have to continue using their makeshift bullpen. Manuel said Luis Ayala, who is 5-of-6 in save chances since being acquired last month, will be the closer.
"I will follow the same routine as I did before ... Every player on this team is trying to do the best job. We have a great bullpen," said Ayala of the relief corps that went 23 innings without allowing a run before Ayala gave up an unearned run Sunday night.
Ayala had Tommy John surgery in 2006 and is confident that Wagner, an extreme competitor, will make it back.
"The most important thing -- if you are focused on the future you can do it," Ayala said.