CRAB CAKES: Neil Wagner returns to mound after near two-year absence

By Josh Vitale, SunCoast Sports

PORT CHARLOTTE — Even in a league full of nothing but 20-somethings, 32-year-old Neil Wagner felt the butterflies when he took the mound in the eighth inning Tuesday night.

For the first time since undergoing Tommy John surgery on Aug. 19, 2014, Wagner was pitching in a regular-season game. On any level.

“Right up until first pitch, it was a little nerve-wracking,” Wagner said. “But after that first pitch came out, it was a normal game. And it was really good to be out there.”

The results were about as good as he ever could have hoped. Wagner threw a perfect frame for the Charlotte Stone Crabs in a 3-1 victory over the Jupiter Hammerheads, inducing a flyout and two groundouts with a fastball that sat consistently at 95 mph on the stadium radar gun.

“I maybe wasn’t quite as sharp with a couple pitches, but it’s been a while,” Wagner said. “The ball felt pretty good coming out, and the big thing for me right now is not overthrowing or getting too worried about the radar gun just yet. But it’s good that the velo was good.”

Charlotte manager Michael Johns said the right-hander, who signed a minor league deal with Tampa Bay in September of 2014 and was in big-league camp this spring, will stay with the Stone Crabs for at least a few outings before the Rays decide whether to move him up in the system.

“It’s been two years at this point, so what’s a couple days here or there?” Wagner said. “It’s better, at this point, to do it correctly than to do it fast.”

Wagner last pitched in the majors in 2014, and has a 4.92 ERA in 52 big-league appearances over three seasons between Oakland and Toronto.

THE INFIRMARY: Right-hander Mike Franco (oblique) returned from a 12-day absence on Tuesday, allowing two hits and a hit-by-pitch but no runs in 2/3 of an inning.

Right-hander Brandon Koch (right arm tenderness) has nothing structurally wrong with his arm was placed on the disabled list Friday as a precaution. He is said to be “getting closer” to a return.

Infielder Andrew Velazquez (hamstring) is also getting closer, having played in extended spring training games on Saturday and Monday. He is expected to come off the DL soon, possibly as soon as when the Stone Crabs return from a six-game road trip on May 11.

Outfielder Justin Williams (hamstring) has not started running yet and is said to be “not close” to a return.

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