On a warm Friday night in Danville, Calif., the lights flooded the diamond and the stars were out as Joey Wagman shone.
The center fielder for the Monte Vista High School baseball team was known as the captain of the outfield, a leader in perusing the desolate stretch of grass between the diamond and the outfield fence. While his stats showed he was an excellent hitter and an all-league fielder, there was something more to his game than just shagging fly balls.
Wagman — now two years removed from high school — still excels on Friday nights, but in a different, more pivotal role. Throughout his tenure with Cal Poly baseball, he’s proved there was indeed more to him than met the eye.
A .422 hitter as a senior in 2009, Wagman now peruses the 60-foot-6-inch stretch of grass leading from the dugout to the pitcher’s mound making the transition from the outfield — he is Cal Poly’s Friday night starting pitcher, a position often reserved for the ace of the staff.
“It’s a different situation than most guys,” Wagman said. “I have been pitching my whole life, but I just didn’t get that many opportunities in high school because we had so many other (pitchers). Luckily enough, I got the opportunity to come to Cal Poly, and I’m very thankful for it.”
The junior is 4-1 this season boasting a 2.57 ERA — second among Cal Poly starters; Kyle Anderson ranks first. He’s also proved to be the team’s workhorse in non-conference play, pitching 42 innings headed into the Cal Poly’s first Big West series this weekend against Long Beach State. Among fellow conference hurlers, he trails only Cal State Fullerton’s Dylan Floro in that category.
The East Bay-product has also struck out 30 and claims a .242 opponent’s batting average — good enough for ninth among Big West pitchers.
Wagman, however, only recently made the jump to the starting role after a successful stint in the bullpen in 2011. As a sophomore, he started seven games and made 17 total appearances in a year that would see him finish with a strong 4-3 record. He came to life near the end of the season for the Mustangs, posting a 2.45 ERA in the final three weeks of the campaign.
Wagman was billed as the team’s premier starter this year, though. And he offers the Mustangs the best opportunity to start a weekend series with a win, according to head coach Larry Lee.
“He has the mindset to be a Friday night starter,” Lee said. “He’s been successful because he competes and makes his three pitches for strikes. As long as he can do that, he has the ability to keep us in every ball game.”
Lee caught a glimpse of his future pitcher in a high school player’s showcase in Arizona before Wagman committed to Cal Poly. According to Lee, Wagman showed an esteemed combination of pitches with his change-up, fastball and curveball.
“I thought that in time he could develop into a quality pitcher, and sure enough, everything is falling into place,” he said. “(Wagman) believes in himself, he always has, and now he’s getting a chance to be more so in the spotlight.”
Wagman wasted no time showing he belonged in his new role, throwing a two-hit shutout in eight innings in Cal Poly’s first outing of 2012 against Oklahoma State. Chase Johnson closed out the game with a perfect ninth inning to give the Mustangs their first win of the year.
With the help of Wagman, Cal Poly boasts a surprising 16-8 start in non-conference play. But his ultimate goal is to lead the Mustangs to a Big West and national championship.
“I get to give my team a chance to win against the other team’s best guy every week,” Wagman said. “That couldn’t be more fun for me. It’s a great honor because I know how many guys there are that want this position.”
Teammates and coaches of Wagman are quick to point to his defining leadership in the clubhouse and on the mound.
The Mustangs are known to be a young squad, but roommate and sophomore catcher Chris Hoo said the team’s camaraderie stems from Wagman’s work ethic.
“It’s good that he has experience with all the coaches, and he shows all the younger guys that you need to work hard to make it somewhere,” Hoo said.
It’s not all business for Wagman though, who takes reprieve from the everyday grind by playing Nintendo 64 with Hoo and other roommates after mid-week practices and Tweeting from his satirical Twitter handle, @TheFakeJ_Waggy, which refers to the irony of many “real” athletes’ Twitter accounts.
The business administration junior also said his love for baseball won’t stop after college — he wants to become a high school math teacher and baseball coach upon graduation.
But for now, Wagman will continue to focus on helping his young team continue its underdog season.
“This is the best team I’ve been a part of,” Wagman said. “The chemistry is unbelievable, and we have a group of guys that are hard working overall. Everybody is real committed to win … We’re going to stay hungry and try to keep it rolling.”