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Wagner makes a big first impression with Braves
New Atlanta Braves closer Billy Wagner pitches during the first day of baseball spring training workouts for pitchers and catchers at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex Saturday in Orlando, Fla - photo by The Associated Press

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — In past years, Billy Wagner got Bobby Cox’s attention by writing a message on a baseball and rolling it across the field into the Atlanta Braves’ dugout.

Cox said Saturday the messages from Wagner would be something like “’I’m back, you know.”’

“We’ve had Billy in our plans for a number of years but always got beat out,” Cox said.

Finally, the Braves signed Wagner to a one-year, $7 million deal in December to be the team’s closer this season. The deal includes a $6.5 million club option for 2011.

Wagner made his return from elbow ligament-replacement surgery late last year and posted a 1.72 ERA in 17 games with the Mets and Red Sox.

The 38-year-old Wagner’s strong showing convinced the Braves his left arm is healthy.

He said he was still trying to impress his new team on Saturday when he threw what Cox called a “great” bullpen session and batting practice.

“I felt fine,” Wagner said. “I felt everything you’re supposed to feel when you join a new team and you’re trying to impress everybody. ... I was excited.”

Wagner puts an emphasis on first impressions. He walked into the Braves clubhouse for the start of spring training wearing a cowboy hat, boots, jeans and a western shirt.

Oh, and he was carrying a football.

That’s an entrance that gets noticed.

“He has a presence,” said catcher Brian McCann of Wagner, who ranks third among active relievers with 385 career saves, trailing Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera.

“His resume speaks for itself and we are fortunate to have him on our team.”

Wagner said throwing a football “strengthens the arm and it helps the grip.”

Wagner spent eight full seasons with Houston and recorded 59 saves in two seasons with Philadelphia before three seasons with the Mets.

He has a chance to challenge John Franco’s 424 saves, the most by any left-hander.

“I have to have a special year this year to top Franco, and I’ve worked this offseason with the mindset of being able to go this season and accomplish that,” he said. “If I’m able to go out there and throw 40 saves, there’s a great chance the Braves are going to the playoffs.”

Wagner said his new teammates would be aware of his career stats but would be more interested Saturday to see what the new closer can do in 2010.

That’s why Wagner said Saturday’s first workout was important.

“Oh yeah, because you just want to impress,” he said. “I know these guys know what I’ve done, but it doesn’t matter what I’ve done. It’s what can I do now to help the team.

“They want to see. They’re looking. They’re watching. ... You’ve always got to impress, no matter what your stature is.”
Wagner says he grew up in Virginia cheering for the Braves.

“It’s funny because everybody back home says ‘Now I can truly root for you,’” Wagner said. “It’s a great experience just because you know you grew up watching them. ... You feel like you’ve got that bond.

“Me and Bobby have always joked about me coming over here. Now I have the opportunity. It’s a great feeling.”

Cox said he was impressed by Wagner and another veteran newcomer in the bullpen, 40-year-old Takashi Saito.

Cox said Saito will be the first option when Wagner needs a break.

Wagner and Saito replace Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez as the team’s top late-inning relievers.

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