October 9, 2008
By David Driver
Used with permission
The mood was festive in the Tampa Bay clubhouse as the Rays closed the regular season.
The traveling secretary went around the room asking players how many tickets they wanted to buy for family and friends for the American League playoffs.
One group of players engaged in a game of dominoes before batting practice. And many of the Rays sported some new Mohawk haircuts, including Warwick native and Tampa reliever Dan Wheeler.
“It definitely took on a life of its own,” Wheeler said of Mohawk fever that has gripped Tampa Bay. “I was dead set against it.”
But Wheeler, a 1995 graduate of Pilgrim High School, eventually caved in.
There is good reason for such unbridled joy.
The Rays, after just 66 wins last season, clinched a post-season berth for the first time in franchise history. Tampa Bay had never won more than 70 games prior to this season.
The team won 69 games in 1999, the year Wheeler made his Major League debut with the club, but finished the regular season with a 97-65 mark and advanced to the American League Division Series against the Chicago White Sox.
“It is exciting, it really is,” said Wheeler, who appeared in post-season play with the Houston Astros in 2004 and 2005. “You can’t overlook [playoff baseball]. I have been very lucky.”
Wheeler, 30, was drafted by Tampa Bay out of college in 1996. He made his Major League debut with the club, then played with the New York Mets and Astros before he was traded back to Tampa Bay in 2007.
This season he was 5-6 with an ERA of 3.12 in 70 games. He finished with 26 holds (fourth most in the majors) and recorded 13 saves in limited opportunities. Wheeler allowed just 44 hits and 22 walks with 53 strikeouts in 66.1 innings.
“I felt pretty good about it. I felt I have contributed and helped the team win some games,” he said. “I have been able to help this club.”
Rays manager Joe Maddon told The Tampa Tribune: “This time of year, under these type of circumstances, experience really matters a lot, I believe, and Danny definitely has got a handle on that.”
His performance is even more gratifying since he was 0-5 with an ERA of 5.76 in 25 games with Tampa Bay last season after being traded in July 2007 by Houston for Ty Wigginton.
Wheeler entered this season with 25 Major League saves, but none in 55 games with the Rays. He got the chance to close some games when veteran Troy Percival missed time with back stiffness.
“I would have liked for Troy to be healthy all year,” said Wheeler, normally a setup man who got to close games while Percival was out.
Wheeler said the addition of Percival and other veterans played a big part in the team’s success this season.
“I definitely think the veteran presence that was brought in has helped us out,” he said. “We had something going=2 0on already. There was a group of good players in place.”
The pennant race with Boston has been an added bonus for Wheeler, a son of New England.
“It was exciting,” he said of a series in Fenway Park in early September. “You grow up rooting for those guys. The Red Sox are a classy group of guys. It is a lot of fun.”
Wheeler and the Rays will host the Red Sox tomorrow night for game one of the American League Championship Series at 8:37 p.m. Game two is set for Saturday at 8:07 p.m. and the series will head north to Boston on Monday for game three at 4:37 p.m.