Hayden Goethe, Published July 13 2013
Ex-Bison pitcher Wagner fitting into role nicely with Toronto Blue Jays
For someone whose career is built on his fastball, Neil Wagner’s long, winding path to becoming the first and only
ex-North Dakota State player to play in Major League Baseball was anything but fast.
At 29 years old, Wagner has finally carved out a big league role in the Toronto Blue Jays bullpen.
In 18Zc innings with the Jays, Wagner has an ERA of 2.95 with 15 strikeouts.
When asked if he could have imagined being in this position while at NDSU, Wagner said, “You dream and you hope.”
“But it’s a long way from North Dakota State to the big leagues,” he added. “Even at various times playing in the minor leagues, you get reminders how far away you are.”
The mere mention of Wagner’s name to his former NDSU coach leads to story after story recalling some of his impressive collegiate feats.
“He’s a great kid,” said Mitch McLeod, who recruited Wagner to NDSU and coached him throughout his college tenure. “I babble sometimes when I talk about him, but he really is.
“His sophomore year was just incredible. My gosh. We were still in the (North Central Conference) at the time. That was our last year in the NCC, and we won the conference tournament that year. He was good. Nobody could hit him.”
The stats from that sophomore year of 2004 are staggering: 6-0 record with 59 strikeouts in just 38Xc innings. Opponents batted .179 off of him.
“I remember playing the University of Minnesota that year and we got beat,” McLeod said. “… I brought him into the eighth inning, because I wanted him to pitch, and there were a lot of scouts there.”
With every pitch, McLeod said he would peek his head out of the dugout and look toward Minnesota Twins scout Mark Wilson. Wilson was tracking the velocity on each pitch from Wagner, who is a Minneapolis native.
“He struck the kid out on three fastballs,” McLeod said. “Wilson gave me the ‘six’ sign (for 96 mph). Maybe the University of Minnesota was regretting their choice not to go after him in their own backyard.”
In 2005, as a junior, Wagner posted an ERA of 8.07 on a team that went just 10-43-1. A combination of an ankle injury and some issues with his mechanics stemming from a summer baseball league were blamed.
“Oh my God, I remember that,” McLeod said. “He was pitching for the Mankato Moondogs after his sophomore year. … (A pitching coach) changed his mechanics that summer. I remember (NDSU pitching coach) Steve Montgomery was just beside himself.”
Wagner said that a stress fracture to his knee suffered during the summer and the program’s move from NCAA Division II to Division I also factored into his struggles.
The loss of 5 mph or more on a fastball that was previously hitting 96 caused Wagner’s draft stock to plummet. Once considered a potential pick in the 2005 draft’s first five rounds, Wagner was taken in the 21st round by the Cleveland Indians.
The velocity came back, but Wagner did not. Rather than return to school for his senior season and hope to get drafted higher after that, Wagner signed with the Indians and began his slow climb to the big leagues.
He made stops with six different minor league teams and changed organizations once before making his big league debut with the Oakland A’s in 2011. In five innings over six late-season appearances with the A’s, he had an ERA of 7.20.
“When I was up here before (with Oakland),” Wagner said, “there was certainly a bit of, ‘Wow, these are big league hitters.’
Wagner returned to the minor leagues in 2012 and struggled, posting a 5.46 ERA.
“Last year during spring training, they wanted me to start throwing a curveball,” Wagner said. “That was my go-to off-speed pitch. It wasn’t that great. It got hammered quite a bit.”
After signing with the Toronto Blue Jays prior to this season, Wagner opted to ditch the curveball.
“Going into the offseason, I decided no matter what happens that needs to go,” Wagner said. “I started working on a cutter. It kind of morphed into a slider.”
He found immediate success for the Blue Jays’ Triple-A affiliate in Buffalo, N.Y. And with a 0.89 ERA through 19 minor league appearances this season, Toronto called up Wagner. He made his Jays debut with two scoreless innings on May 29.
McLeod, who is now the American Legion baseball coach and high school activities director in Detroit Lakes, Minn., wasn’t surprised to see Wagner become the first former Bison player to reach the major leagues.
“With Neil, he was just a cut above,” said McLeod, who stays in regular contact with Wagner. “There was just something different about him. It kind of surprised me that it took this long. … I’m really, really proud of him.”
Now Wagner just hopes, unlike with the A’s in 2011, that he’s here to stay with the Jays. And he hopes he won’t be the only ex-Bison in the big leagues for much longer.
“I wish I wasn’t the only one,” Wagner said. “Now that the team has started to have a bit more success in Division I, hopefully that will change. But for now, it’s an honor to be the only one.”
Readers can reach Forum Assistant Sports Editor
Hayden Goethe at (701) 241-5558