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Closer Smackdown: Billy Wagner vs. Tom Gordon

For a guy who was so happy to be leaving Philadelphia, New York Mets closer Billy Wagner sure seems to be obsessed with his former team and town. As you've probably heard by now, the Alpaca Kid let his old teammates have it again over the weekend, telling the Inquirer that he was a clubhouse pariah for braving speaking the truth--that the Phils weren't intense enough to win--to a room full of passionless careerists more concerned about their own stats than experiencing the glory of postseason baseball.

This is the same Billy Wagner who's played in a grand total of five playoff games, all in the Division Series, all with the Astros between 1997 and 2001, when Houston shared with St. Louis dominion over the weak NL Central. He was scored upon in three of those five games, pitching to a 7.71 career postseason ERA. So for every playoff game in which Wagner has actually pitched, he's expressed his comprehensive knowledge of what playoff baseball entails... what, ten, fifteen times?

Then there's Tom Gordon, the man who has replaced Wagner as the protector of ninth-inning leads.

I'll admit to a little gloating here. I was one of the few who had a positive reaction to the Gordon signing back in December, and I'd actually wanted the Phils to sign him as the closer following his strong 2003 campaign with the White Sox (7-6, 12 saves, 3.16, 91 strikeouts in 74 IP). Of course, that's when they traded Brandon Duckworth, Ezequiel Astacio and Taylor Buchholz for Wagner. The deal probably was worth making--though if Buchholz keeps going as he's done for Houston this year (2-1, 2.16 in six games, including four starts), it's a tough call--but Gordon instead went to the Yankees and became the game's best setup man for the game's best closer, Mariano Rivera.

After 2005, he decided he wanted to close again, and the Phils beat out a handful of teams to sign the 38 year-old. Gordon, however, heard his skeptics. And where Wagner almost certainly would have mouthed off, the veteran righty just used it as motivation, not mentioning a word until this past week.

Gordon read area newspapers after signing and determined that the Philadelphia media decided he was too old to take on closing full-time for the first time since 2001.

"I read, "If there's an if, Tom Gordon's the if on this team,' and every day I put on that uniform I take that on the field," Gordon said. "And I'm going to continue to do it because I feel like nobody has given me an opportunity because I'm 38.

"That should have been over once I signed. I know that I'm not Billy Wagner. God knows, I could never replace Billy Wagner. I respect Billy Wagner. But I also respect who I am and how I go about my business."
Gordon wasn't combative when sharing his feelings last week. He's still accepting almost all interview requests, too, and he's usually quotable and friendly. But he prefers the topic of conversation be about the Phillies, not Tom Gordon. He's been to the postseason pitching for the Red Sox and Yankees, and doing the same with the Phillies is his only 2006 goal.

"If this team is a part of the '06 playoffs, then I think I've done my job," he said. "If not, I don't think I have. I learned a lot being with the Yankees. I learned a lot being with the Red Sox who were able to do it year after year. To come to places where they haven't won and to start setting goals, I think my entire goal for '06 is to be in the playoffs. I really don't want to talk about me."

Which, alone, is a big difference between the Phils' current closer and his predecessor.

Wagner vs. Gordon, 2006

Wagner 2-0 7 15 17 12 8 3 19 1.18 .190 2.12
Gordon 1-1 10 15 14.2 4 5 0 23 0.61 .085 0.61