Commentary

Wheeler, Price provide much-needed relief for Rays

Originally Published: October 11, 2008
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Had the Rays not come back to win Game 2, Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon would have been in serious trouble. Not only would his team have been trailing the Red Sox two games to none and heading to Fenway Park with no guarantee (or likelihood) of returning the series to Florida, he also would have been facing a significant fine for violating Rule 23, Paragraph 6, Subsection C, Codicil IV of the basic agreement with the players' association that strictly forbids the misuse of a closer.

[+] EnlargeDan Wheeler
Elsa/Getty ImagesDan Wheeler entered the game with two outs in the eighth, then tossed 3 1/3 scoreless innings. His only blemish was a wild pitch that allowed the Red Sox to tie the game at 8.
First, Maddon pitched Dan Wheeler with a one-run lead in the eighth inning, a flagrant disregard for the modern role of a closer who is supposed to pitch only the ninth inning, preferably with a three-run lead and only after a properly loud introduction accompanied by heavy metal music. Then, he sent Wheeler to the mound for a second inning. And a third inning. And then, with Wheeler's agent no doubt ready to file a grievance, Maddon sent the pitcher out there for a fourth inning of work in the top of the 11th.

Maddon probably would have been arrested had Wheeler actually completed that inning. Instead, he replaced him with rookie and former Montgomery Biscuit David Price, who finished the inning and -- surprise! -- wound up the winning pitcher in the 9-8 victory.

Maddon's creative approach to the bullpen worked. In the other dugout, Boston manager Terry Francona pulled his closer, Jonathan Papelbon, after he threw just 18 pitches, then watched Mike Timlin walk three batters (the last of which was an intentional pass) and give up the deciding run. How those moves will play out and how the various relievers will respond during the rest of the series is something we'll just have to wait to see.

"I think it will be OK,'' Wheeler said of how his arm will recover. "Luckily, we have [Sunday] off, and if I just keep preparing the same way and doing my usual program, I'll be ready. Besides, it's the postseason. At this time of the year, you have to be ready to go.''

In all, Wheeler threw 48 pitches, more than he had in any single game in more than two years. "He was just in a zone,'' said fellow reliever J.P. Howell, who threw 23 pitches in 1 1/3 innings (the wimp). "He got into a rhythm, and he could have gone nine or 10 innings.''

Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration. And Wheeler wasn't in a zone in the eighth inning when he fired a Nuke LaLoosh-like pitch to the screen. Fortunately, the pitch missed the mascot. Unfortunately for the Rays, it allowed Dustin Pedroia to score from third base and tie the game at 8. "I think I was trying to do too much with the pitch,'' Wheeler said.

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But Wheeler recovered and got the third out, then pitched a scoreless ninth and 10th before finally leaving after walking Boston's Jed Lowrie with one out in the 11th. Wheeler said he'd joked with Maddon and pitching coach Jim Hickey before the game that he could go three innings if necessary, little realizing it would be in a game in which a dozen relievers were used.

The Rays should have known Game 2 would be one of those nights when starter Scott Kazmir needed 38 pitches just to get out of the first inning. Kazmir has been inconsistent recently -- he threw 37 pitches in the first inning of Game 2 of the AL Division Series against the White Sox -- and he continued to struggle, throwing 98 pitches before Maddon yanked him in the fifth inning. That was at least one pitch and likely one inning too late, because Kazmir gave up two home runs in the fifth, including a jolt by Kevin Youkilis that ended the pitcher's night.

That's when fans saw that Maddon wasn't managing the game by conventional methods. As reliever Grant Balfour said, with the prospect of going down 2-0 to the defending world champs, the Rays had to treat Game 2 as if it were the last game of the season. So Maddon brought in his two best set-up men -- Balfour and Howell -- in the fifth inning, with mixed results. Balfour gave up a home run and walked two batters before Howell bailed him out.

Howell, Chad Bradford and Wheeler settled down what had been a chaotic game, setting the stage for Price to earn the victory.

Price was the No. 1 pick in the 2007 MLB draft and has made a mercurial rise to the majors. He started this season at Class A Vero Beach, where he pitched against a rehabbing Pedro Martinez in his second professional start. He moved up to Double-A Montgomery, then to the Triple-A Durham Bulls, then to the majors in mid-September. Just months after proudly wearing a Montgomery Biscuits jersey, he was taking the mound with a runner on first base and the score tied in the 11th against the Red Sox.

[+] EnlargeDavid Price
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesRays rookie David Price relieved Dan Wheeler in the 11th. He faced three batters and recorded two outs.
Not that he faced any pressure.

"You can't go in there thinking, 'This is the biggest game of my life,' which it was,'' Price said. "You have to approach it like it was any other game.''

Price insisted he wasn't nervous, but after throwing his first pitch for a strike, he threw four consecutive balls to J.D. Drew and put runners on first and second. Catcher Dioner Navarro and first baseman Carlos Pena then paid a visit to tell him to relax, take a deep breath and hold the ball like an egg and breathe through his eyelids. Well, they said the first two things for sure. Price listened. "They know how to make people real comfortable,'' Price said.

After the visit, Price struck out Mark Kotsay looking and retired Coco Crisp on a fielder's choice for the third out of the inning. Then he went back to the dugout and watched the Rays score a run off Timlin to give him something many pitchers never earn in their careers: a victory.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com