Three pitches into his first postseason appearance of 2010, Wagner trudged slowly back to the Braves' dugout, clutching his left side, surely wondering if it was all over.
Wagner announced early in the season that this -- his 16th year in the Majors -- would be his last. He wanted to leave the sport on his own terms. And yet, after suffering a left oblique strain in the 10th inning of Atlanta's 5-4 win over the Giants, Wagner might not be able to.
The Braves plan to take Wagner off their postseason roster prior to Game 3 on Sunday, as it was obvious after Friday's 5-4 win over the Giants that Wagner will need considerable time to recover.
Removing Wagner from the series roster will allow Atlanta to activate either Jair Jurrjens or Takashi Saito for the remainder of this best-of-five battle against the Giants. However, playoff rules stipulate that when a player comes off due to injury, he is not eligible to return for the next round either.
That means that if Wagner is to make one more career appearance, the Braves would have to advance to the World Series. And even then, it's uncertain that Wagner would be healthy enough for manager Bobby Cox to feel comfortable reinserting him back into the bullpen.
So, yes, this very well could be it.
A 94-mph fastball could be Wagner's last. A valiant effort to record a critical out while stinging with pain could be the last image of an eventual Hall of Famer who ranks fifth on baseball's all-time saves list.
"If I can't pitch, that's it," Wagner said, the reality of the situation having sunk in. "It stinks. But I just thank God for the opportunity to get out there in the first place. You just have to deal with the good and bad. It's been great. Our team's not done, so I'll be here to help them in whatever little way possible and just enjoy the ride."
Wagner took the AT&T Park mound on Friday charged with the task of pushing the game into the 11th. He got Giants pinch-hitter Edgar Renteria to swing through his first fastball, but Renteria countered with an unexpected bunt attempt on Wagner's second offering.
The play worked beautifully for Renteria, who arrived at first safe. It was also Wagner's undoing.
The left-hander made a last-second effort to avoid colliding with third baseman Troy Glaus and, as he did so, he felt a tweak. Wagner briefly grabbed his left side but strolled back to the mound without a visit from the Atlanta trainers.
He made another pitch, one that was subsequently bunted right back toward the mound by Giants leadoff hitter Andres Torres. Wagner fielded it, albeit awkwardly, and looked toward second briefly before making a hasty throw to beat Torres on a crucial bang-bang play.
Wagner grabbed his side. He went to his knees immediately.
"After I made the pitch and tried to go toward the plate, I couldn't move," Wagner said. "Thank God he bunted it just hard enough to get back to me to make a play at all. I couldn't move. I don't really know how I got it to first."
Minutes later, Wagner was in the trainer's room.
"It's very tough," Braves catcher Brian McCann said. "He's such a competitor. He's a huge reason we're in the position that we are. You can't replace a Billy Wagner. You just can't. But I know he's going to be out there and cheer everybody on and be the best teammate like he's been all season long. You feel for him."
A career total of 422 saves -- 37 in his only season with Atlanta -- can't be replaced. Nor can the postseason experience, which now totals 14 appearances in eight different series. But the Braves are going to have to try.
"We'll pick him up for the rest of the series and hopefully the rest of the playoffs," reliever Peter Moylan said.
Rookie right-hander Craig Kimbrel is likely to assume the closer's role in Wagner's absence, and the Braves can only hope that Kimbrel's stellar performance on Friday is further proof that he's ready to step into a role that he wasn't supposed to have to fill until next season.
Kimbrel, who notched 23 saves with Triple-A Gwinnett (Ga.) this season, faced the minimum in two innings of relief. The 22-year-old's dominance highlighted nine scoreless innings from Atlanta's bullpen in Game 2.
"I'm probably the worst one out there," joked Wagner. "I wouldn't want to face our bullpen. We have unknowns out there that don't have patterns. They're in a good situation. They're very capable of doing what [Cox] asks."
How Saito (right shoulder discomfort) fares in his scheduled instructional league outing on Saturday will be a significant factor as Atlanta decides whether he or Jurrjens (sore right knee) will join the club at Turner Field on Sunday. Jurrjens threw four pain-free innings in an instructional league game on Tuesday.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less