WHEN BILLY WAGNER, generously listed by the Phillies at 5'11" and 200 pounds, showed up to play in the Cape Cod League in 1992, he met Todd Walker, now the Cubs' second baseman. Walker's first reaction, when he heard the lefty was a pitcher, was, "Oh, you must be a thumber"--a pitcher who throws a lot of off-speed junk. "I just said, 'Yeah, whatever,'" Wagner recalls. "After I pitched, he came up and said, 'I'm sorry. I was so wrong.'"
Wagner may not have the build of fellow flamethrower Randy Johnson (6'10", 230 pounds), but his fastball has been clocked at 102 mph, and at 33, with 267 career saves, he is underestimated no more--as the SI PLAYERS poll on page 35 shows. Yet even Wagner can't explain how he musters such velocity with his four-seam grip. "I just grew up throwing it," he says. "Nobody ever said, 'Here's how you throw the fastball.' It was, Grab the ball, throw it as hard as you can." His muscular legs help him drive off the mound; otherwise his mantra is, Hang loose. "I keep my hand and arm as relaxed as possible, so when I release the ball, I have a little extra whip. It'll feint, it'll sail. It's got a mind of its own." Over his career Wagner has held opponents to a .186 batting average, and apart from a torn tendon in his left elbow that sidelined him for much of 2000, he's been injury-free. "He's the hardest thrower in the league," says Cardinals star Albert Pujols. "You tip your cap and pray before you go out there." Such compliments don't go to Wagner's head. "When you throw 95 percent fastballs," he says, "you better have a decent one." -- Ben Reiter