Titans' Wagner Rewarded for Not Throwing In the Towel

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He was cut from his high school team twice, barely made it on the junior varsity team as a junior, then was kicked off the varsity as a senior in his hometown of Plano, Tex.

Now, little more than two years later, Matt Wagner is scheduled to pitch in the College World Series today in a game his Cal State Fullerton team must win to keep its hopes alive for a national championship after a loss to Georgia Tech in the tournament opener.

For Wagner, it has been a remarkable rise in only one season, and he hopes he can stay on track today. He has gone from the bottom of the pitching list when the season began to a 12-1 record and the honor of being selected Big West pitcher of the year.

"I felt I could do this if I had the chance, and Fullerton gave it to me," Wagner said Saturday as he awaited today's 4:36 (PDT) game against Louisiana State in Rosenblatt Stadium. "I couldn't ask for a better situation to develop as a pitcher."

Wagner was a catcher when he started playing in high school, but he didn't make the team his freshman or sophomore years. "The coach told me he was going to cut me again my junior year as a catcher, but they had only one other pitcher on the JV team and he asked me if I wanted to try that. I finally made the varsity as pitcher my senior year, but then I got kicked off."

A drinking incident involving him and some other students got Wagner booted from the team. "I don't think the coach liked me, though, and I think he was just looking for a reason to kick me off," Wagner said.

Wagner still hadn't overwhelmed anyone with his pitching at that point. He was only 1-1 at the time after pitching in five games. He got another chance to try it at Abilene Christian last year, but he wasn't happy there and transferred to Fullerton. Coach Augie Garrido and his pitching coach George Horton gave him a chance to walk on.

They also told him he would have to get in better shape. Wagner was 6 feet 5, 240 pounds at the time, and he decided to go on a diet. He eliminated red meat and fast foods. "I was living on tuna fish, but I lost 33 pounds in a month and a half in late October and early November." He also started running regularly as part of a preseason conditioning program.

He started the season in the bullpen, but after a series of strong relief performances, he moved into the starting rotation in early March and has been there since.

"I feel I pitched well all season," Wagner said. "I think the only game I had a bad outing in was against Oklahoma State in the regional last week," Wagner said. "I thought too much about what I had to do for the team. I wanted to do so well, and I wasn't concentrating on the way I should have been on every pitch. I pitched two innings of relief the next night, and that helped me get my confidence back."

Horton said Wagner was in part the victim of the plate umpire's tight strike zone in his last start at the regional. "It was a tough environment, too, at Oklahoma State and he didn't handle it as well as he could have," Horton said. "Our season is on the line now, though, I feel good about handing him the ball."

Wagner said he feels good about everything, too.

"One thing I've found is that the coaches here are incredible," Wagner said. "They've really helped me develop."

He also points to his catcher, Bret Hemphill, as a key factor in his success this season. "I don't think people realize just how good a catcher he really is," Wagner said. "As far as I'm concerned, he's the best catcher in the country. He knows me, and he can tell when I'm not straight in my head. He comes out and gets me back on track."

Hemphill said Wagner sometimes will let his emotions get out of control.

"Matt is very competitive, and you have to like that in a pitcher," Hemphill said. "I just remind him to focus on what he's doing and forget about the things going on around him."

Hemphill also is confident Wagner will pitch well against Louisiana State.

"He has a very good fastball, and the reason he's so successful is that he has really good control," Hemphill said.

Wagner also has worked to develop a split-finger fastball, which has been a factor in his emergence as a top college pitcher. "That split-finger pitch he throws can really be nasty when he's on," Hemphill said.

Wagner will have plenty of personal support for today's game. His parents are divorced, but they will be at the game with friends and relatives. "Between my ex-wife and me, we've bought about 34 tickets," Wagner's father, John, said.

Wagner is confident the Titans can bounce back, the way they did from the losers' bracket in the regional.

"Nobody said it was going to be easy," Wagner said.

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