It was the bottom of the seventh inning at Riley Park in a game all knotted up at three runs apiece between the RiverDogs and the Columbia Fireflies. Charleston first baseman Eric Wagaman stepped to the plate to lead off the frame for the home nine, and lined the first pitch he saw to left field for extra bases. On his way to arriving safely at second base, he stepped awkwardly on the bag and injured his foot. Catcher Eduardo Navas would be summoned by RiverDogs skipper Julio Mosquera to pinch run for the 6'4" infielder.
Charleston eventually prevailed 6-3 in the contest, sparked by Wagaman's leadoff two-bagger, but it would mark the last game action he would see for 49 days. The Orange Coast College product spent the next seven weeks rehabbing the injury in Extended Spring Training and the Gulf Coast League.
"When it first happened, I didn't think I'd be out for seven weeks, that's for sure," Wagaman admitted. "Every day, my foot looked even worse and worse, so I had to start taking it day-by-day. Otherwise, mentally, it takes too long. If you look at it day-by-day, it definitely went by way faster, especially in Tampa, being away from my friends out here. It helped speed up the process a little bit, and I'm just glad to be back here with them, playing for them and helping them win."
Simplifying his approach mentally and at the plate has helped him through his ordeal, and helped him come back even better than before that fateful night. Wagaman returned to the RiverDogs on the Fourth of July, in time for Charleston's second road trip of the second half. During the four-game series in Greenville, he earned four hits in 15 at bats with a run scored, one double and three RBI to get his feet wet before returning to the Joe.
Wagaman was re-introduced to his home crowd on July 9, and crushed the first pitch he saw off the batter's eye in center field to give his club an early 1-0 lead in an eventual 9-6 win over the Rome Braves. The solo shot marked his third of the season.
"That was cool when I hit that ball, I knew I hit it pretty well, but I didn't think that was going to get out just because of the wind," he said. "I've never seen anyone hit one out there, so that was just really cool to have it stay up there and eventually get out."
Overall, the first baseman has been tearing the cover off the ball since his lengthy stay on the 7-Day Injured List. In his first 11 games since being activated, Wagaman hit .325 (13-for-40), a mark that ranked 19th-best in the South Atlantic League, with three doubles, one home run and seven RBI. He slugged .475 and posted an .839 OPS, as well. The secret behind this offensive resurgence?
"I just wanted to make sure to focus on every pitch and not try to do too much," Wagaman said. "Obviously I haven't played in a while, I only had about five games before I came back in, so I really wanted to make sure that I wasn't trying to overswing or overdo things. We have two months left, so there's still time to prove myself here. I just wanted to take that mentality of not trying to do too much and focusing in, and it's working out. I've been seeing the ball well, and my swing feels good right now, so I want to keep going off that."
Wagaman is relieved to finally be back in front of his home crowd and producing like he is, but it was a long road to get back to the Holy City. In those seven weeks between his last game with the RiverDogs and the beginning of his rehab assignment in the Gulf Coast League, he spent his time watching his teammates and keeping up with what was going on, as well as getting into the right mental state to prepare for his stint with the GCL Yankees.
"Every day I would check how these guys are doing," he said. "I talked to Kyle Gray almost every day to see how he's doing. He kept me filled in on what's going on, coaching-wise, player-wise, how everyone's doing. I listened to the radio broadcasts a lot, because these are my good friends. I definitely wanted to keep up with them, and I thought I did a pretty good job."
Now, Wagaman and the rest of the team have their sights set on getting better, day-by-day. For a RiverDogs club that ranked third-to-last in the SAL in hitting (.223) in the first 25 games since the All-Star Break, the team isn't panicking just yet. They're sticking to what had worked for them offensively in the first half, and they know that the numbers will come in time.
"We know that it's going to work," Wagaman said. "And by the end of this next month and a half to two months, hopefully we'll be on top."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.