First, there was swelling, which became too much to bear during this month's opening series in Houston. Then, there was rest, aimed at healing his left arm. And now, more than two weeks later, an additional MRI has revealed increased inflammation in a tendon of Wagner's left elbow. So the Mets closer will not return this week, as team officials once hoped, and could potentially miss the remainder of the season.
"I want to play," Wagner said. "I want to compete. There's only so much time in a career, and I want to get out there and help my teammates."
The Mets continue to express confidence that Wagner can indeed return this season, though they remain quite concerned of his health. Because rest did not improve Wagner's left arm -- the swelling has only increased over the past two weeks -- the Mets must proceed forward without him in their plans.
Wagner won't be able to throw off a mound until doctors reexamine him and find no additional damage, which can't occur until after the swelling subsides. In the interim, he will proceed with all other baseball activities and a light program of catch.
"Our doctors have pretty much recommended that he rest some more," general manager Omar Minaya said. "How much time? We don't know."
Wagner said that he explored other options, including a possible cortisone injection that would allow him to pitch through the injury. But the risk of compounding his medical problems seemed too great, and so Wagner will continue with only his standard regimen of anti-inflammatory medication.
Originally hitting the disabled list on Aug. 5 due to a strained tendon in his left forearm, Wagner pitched in a simulated game and made one rehab appearance for Double-A Binghamton, which left him in a bit of pain. Not surprisingly, the notion of his injury being a forearm strain eventually melted into the reality that he had suffered elbow inflammation -- and possibly worse.
The Mets would not discount the possibility that Wagner may have suffered structural damage in his elbow, admitting only that they won't know for sure until the swelling subsides. So they'll instead proceed with the patchwork bullpen that has struggled in Wagner's absence.
"We'll just try to match up the best way we can," manager Jerry Manuel said.
Although the most likely closer candidate remains Aaron Heilman, he has posted a 12.91 ERA over nine August outings and has proven ineffective in recent ninth-inning stints. The Mets recently demoted another candidate, rookie Eddie Kunz, back to Triple-A to make room for Luis Ayala, but too many questions surround Ayala's velocity for him to step into the role. And none of the other bullpen options -- Scott Schoeneweis, Duaner Sanchez, Joe Smith and Pedro Feliciano -- have been effective on a consistent basis.
The Mets kicked around the idea of converting John Maine into a closer earlier this month, but Maine's health has prevented them from making that move. And the other candidates -- namely Oliver Perez and Mike Pelfrey -- are currently too valuable as starters for Manuel to reassign them to a different role.
So Manuel will instead use his current relievers as individual matchups might dictate.
"The thing that I want to be careful of is anointing someone [as the closer], and then that doesn't work out," Manuel said. "That's where we are now."
Wagner, for his part, disagreed, noting that a closer's effectiveness hinges in large part upon job security -- regardless of short-term success.
"The only reason Billy Wagner is Billy Wagner is because when I blew a save, they put me back out there the next day," Wagner said. "It's totally a feeling of you're the guy that's going to get the ball regardless of who you are, and what you did yesterday."
But Manuel's Mets are in a pennant race, and he can't afford to experiment with handing only one man the keys to the ninth inning.
What's clear is that whoever does ultimately earn the job will do so by providing the type of stability that this bullpen has lacked in recent weeks. If the Mets have designs on winning the division, they'll need to find one, two or a half-dozen men who are capable of closing out wins without incident.
"I do not necessarily determine the role," Manuel said. "The relief pitchers determine the role. Everybody gets an opportunity to get out there and see what they can do, however they do it. If they do it well, they'll get another opportunity. And it's not always result-based. It's how you compete."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.