Catcher Mark Wagner could have done a verbal tap dance and made numerous excuses for his drop-off at the plate last season with the Portland Sea Dogs.
But as he prepared to report to spring training this year in Fort Myers, the chances of that happening were slim and none, and Slim already had left for Texas.
"There was one point where I was leading the team in batting average ... I was hitting .353 early on with a decent amount of at-bats," recalled Wagner, who was promoted from the Sea Dogs to Pawtucket on Jun. 28. "It was like, 'Man, I'm hitting great. I just can roll out of bed and hit.'
"Slowly, over time, I fell a little bit but I was still hitting .330. Then, I was hitting .310. I started to notice I was spiraling (downward). It was a surprise (rude?) awakening where I kind of got away from my routine a little bit.
"That was total 100 percent blame on me," continued Wagner. "It was just a lack of mental toughness on my part where I let my routine slide. Then, all of a sudden, I tried to do too much. I tried to sprint to catch up, to get back on top. It was one of those things where you can't just all of a sudden pick up and go again."
Just how much did Wagner spiral?
His average plummeted to .219 and both his slugging percentage (.363) and on-base percentage (.304) were mediocre at best.
Those stats were a far cry from the ones Wagner racked up after he was picked in the ninth round of the 2005 draft by Boston.
In 2006, for example, he hit .301 in 96 games with Greenville. And, in 2007 at Lancaster, he hit .318 with 14 home runs and 82 RBI in 95 games.
Moreover, he developed into Boston's best defensive catching prospect according to Baseball America.
Among other things, he led all Double-A catchers with a .997 fielding percentage and ranked second in the Eastern League in throwing out 42 percent of attempted base stealers.
"Looking back on (2008), it was a heck of a learning experience for me," admitted Wagner, who was hitting .301 with 18 doubles, three home runs, 23 RBI, and a .410 on-base percentage in 42 games with Portland. "That's what I really learned last year in Portland ... how to stick with the process and how to stay within yourself and that, when you start to slump, you can't get it all back in one game.
"I felt there were times when I hit the ball quite well and didn't get the result, which is when I tried even more."
Fortunately for Wagner, the organization sent him to the Arizona Fall League. Even though he only played in 18 games for Scottsdale, his stats were a quantum improvement over the ones he posted with Portland.
Wagner hit .288 with four home runs and eight RBI.
"I had a great opportunity to go out to the Arizona Fall League where you see some of the best prospects and I did very well," he said. "I talked with some of their hitting coaches, like Dave Joppie and Victor Rodriguez. They helped me reassure myself. They would say 'You know you're a good hitter. Go out and do what you've done and you're going to be just fine.'"
"They told me to stay with the process and that people know I can hit better than this. I had a great time out there, especially after a long season in Portland. My body was a little fatigued but I still felt I did very well out there."
Ironically, despite his proficiency behind the plate (at the time of his promotion, he was leading Eastern League catchers with a .997 fielding percentage), Wagner only has been a full-time catcher for five years.
Wagner pitched and played shortstop much more than he caught at Mayfair High School in Lakewood, Calif. And he initially was drafted by the Atlanta Braves.
"They really liked how I could hit," said Wagner. "I went to Turner Field for a tryout. But at the end of the day I thought 'You know what? I think I'm going to go to college because it would be a better route.'
"At the time, I felt I was still kind of young and had a lot of options in front of me. I had an extremely great opportunity at Cal-Irvine and a number of colleges. I mean, I was going to be paid to play baseball at school.
"There's nothing like going to college when you're younger," continued Wagner. "That's one of the great experiences you're going to have. I decided to go that route and see how it worked out. It did because it brought me to where I am now."
Wagner, who signed after his junior year, was a utility player his freshman year at Cal-Irvine. But the following season, then-head coach John Savage put him behind the plate full time.
"It was more like catching is a commodity even at (the minor league) level or in college," said Wagner. "If you want to be a Division I team that's going to go to the College World Series, you must have a good catcher.
"I always was athletic enough and capable enough to catch some very good guys. We had some very good prospects on our pitching staff at Cal-Irvine and they needed a guy to take care of them. I seemed to fill the bill better than anybody else."
During the transition process, first under Savage and then Dave Serrano who was named the coach prior to Wagner's junior year, he received a crash course in catching.
"It was everything in general, from receiving to take care of the pitchers to blocking pitches in the dirt," he said. "It was the whole nine yards but I picked it up pretty well."
Under Serrano, Wagner was allowed to start calling pitches instead of relaying them in from the bench.
"Serrano was the pitching coach at Cal-State Fullerton and I worked hard with him," said Wagner. "He let me really work on calling pitches. I could say, 'I think we should throw this.' I really got more leeway there."
Wagner also absorbed perhaps the most important lesson a catcher can learn.
"The No. 1 rule is to make sure you get your pitcher a 'W' for that night," he said. "I feel it's a process a lot of guys go through. Maybe it might be more difficult because, with catching, there's so much more of the mental aspect—taking care of pitchers, calling a game, controlling a game and stuff like that.
"At the end of the day, you can be a big league catcher only by taking care of your pitching staff."
Whether or not Wagner will be able to "take care" of a pitching staff in Boston remains to be seen. But he realizes what he has to do in order earn a shot, even though he was placed on Boston's 40-man roster during the offseason.
"One thing I think is going to help me get to where I want to be, which is behind the plate at Fenway, is just refining all of my game, constantly being able to make sure I'm on top of it whether it's blocking, throwing, hitting, whatever," he said. "I've got to realize this is what I'm doing at this point and just do my absolute best to make sure I give it all I've got, to make sure I'm not slacking off anywhere and continue to grow in all aspects and making sure I'm receiving the ball as best as I can.
"I can't take one pitch off. I've got to do whatever it takes to the best of my ability so I can let the pitcher know I'm there for him and am going to do my best to get him that win tonight."
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