- Ian Begley, ESPN New York Writer
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Wagner earned his 20th save this season by tossing a 1-2-3 ninth in the Atlanta Braves' 4-2 win over the Mets. And he wasn't bothered by boos that rained down from the 36,356 on hand at Citi Field as soon as the public address announcer said his name.
"I play for the Braves, so I wouldn't expect them to cheer me," said Wagner, who made his first appearance in Queens since he was traded from the Mets to the Red Sox on Aug. 25.
It's clear that Wagner, who is four saves behind Cincinnati's Francisco Cordero for the lead in the National League, has bounced back well from the Tommy John surgery he underwent in the 2008 offseason.
He's 5-0 with a 1.24 ERA in 37 appearances. Still, he reiterated before Friday night's game that he plans to retire at the end of the season.
But instead of treating his final months in the big leagues as a retirement tour, Wagner has been one of the key reasons the Braves hold a four-game lead over the Mets in the NL East and are the hottest team in baseball since April 30 (43-21).
"Billy Wagner is just a machine right now," Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said after Wagner converted his third save this week.
"I'm just happy to contribute," said Wagner, who has a vesting option that will pay him $6.5 million next season if he hits an undisclosed escalator clause in 2010. "I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel. Just go out there and do what I can and help the them in any way Bobby asks me to."
In addition to converting on 20 of 22 save opportunities, Wagner has served as an elder statesman of sorts in the Braves' clubhouse. He advised left-handed starter Tommy Hanson to "relax" and told him "not to try to make the perfect pitch" when Hanson went through a two-start stretch in late June in which he allowed 14 earned runs on 21 hits.
"When I was struggling, that's what kind of helped me turn it around is talking to Billy, and I appreciate him for that," said Hanson, who allowed two runs on seven hits in 5 2/3 innings Friday night.
Wagner, who will turn 39 on July 25, is enjoying one of the best first-half performances of his career and has plenty left to accomplish before the year is out. He earned his 400th save June 25 and is taking aim at the all-time record for left-handed relievers (John Franco, 424). Wagner needs just 22 strikeouts to match Jesse Orosco (1,169) for the most K's in major league history by a left-handed reliever.
He leads a bullpen that ranked first in the NL and fourth in the majors with a 3.25 ERA entering play Friday night and second in the NL in opponent batting average (.225).
With all that going for him, it's hard to believe Wagner is going to hang up his cleats.
But he reiterated before Friday night's game that no matter how good his surgically repaired left arm feels at the end of the year, he plans to retire.
"No, I'm done," he said.
Ian Begley is a contributor to ESPNNewYork.com
In his final season, former Mets reliever Billy Wagner is showing he still has gas in the tank.