FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Granted, Dan Wheeler said, no one is about to confuse Rays-Red Sox with Yankees-Red Sox when recalling the game’s biggest rivalries.
Wheeler’s connection to the Rays goes back to the team’s very first draft, when they were still the Devil Rays and took him in the 34th round in 1996, two years before they began playing in the American League. He moved around quite a bit since then, but was back for the Rays’ emergence as a power in the AL East.
The native Rhode Islander was at Fenway Park and in the scrum touched off by the James Shields-Coco Crisp brawl in 2008. He was the winning pitcher the September night in Fenway when Dan Johnson, called up from the minors that day, hit a ninth-inning home run off Jonathan Papelbon. He was the pitcher who threw Crisp 10 straight fastballs before Crisp lined the last one for a game-tying base hit in Game 5 of the ’08 ALCS, when the Sox staged one of the greatest comebacks in postseason history, rallying from a 7-1 deficit to win 8-7.
And he helped hold the Red Sox scoreless in the eighth inning of Game 7, when the Rays won the biggest game in franchise history to go to the World Series.
History? There’s plenty there, said Wheeler, who even after leaving the Rays as a free agent to sign with the Red Sox has not exactly cut all ties with Tampa Bay -- his father-in-law is DeWayne Staats, the team’s longtime TV play-by-play man.
And make no mistake about it, Wheeler said: The Rays were stoked when they played the Sox.
“It grew a lot in ’08,’’ Wheeler said of the rivalry, “especially at the end of the year when we went to Game 7. That was real exciting. That was something that definitely helped the Rays organization, to have that team to go up against.
“It was exciting. There was a feeling in the clubhouse that when you’re a Ray you didn’t want to lose to the Red Sox. That was something that drove us to play our best.’’
But after a three-year run in which the Rays went to the postseason each year, winning the division twice, Tampa Bay ownership announced it had little choice but to part ways with many of the players that helped them become big winners. The Red Sox landed perhaps the biggest piece in outfielder Carl Crawford, but they also made a significant move in signing Wheeler, one of an astounding seven relievers who are not returning to the Rays this season.
The 33-year-old Wheeler, who closed for the Rays in ’08 but last season was used mostly in matchup situations against right-handed hitters by manager Joe Maddon, projects to be used in middle relief by Sox manager Terry Francona. He’ll be part of the bridge to get the ball to setup men Bobby Jenks and Daniel Bard, while likely drawing an occasional eighth-inning summons himself.
“I think it’s important to the health of the bullpen,’’ Wheeler said. “You need to have multiple guys to get the job done. That will make us stronger over the course of the year. It’s a long year -- six months, hopefully, seven months -- and you want to be your best in October. I think if we can have guys healthier at the end of the year, it makes us a better and stronger team.’’
Wheeler said the pull of home was a factor in signing with the Red Sox, but was trumped by the chance to win here. “At this point of my career,’’ he said, “the most important thing is to win.’’
Having Crawford in left field will help immensely, Wheeler said, raving about the defense played by his once and future teammate.
“That’s the guy you want behind you,’’ Wheeler said. “He can take a bloop single away, he’s so fast. He can take a double away because he’s diving full out to the gap and makes the catch. The speed he has, the jumps he gets, are just amazing.’’
As for what it will be like to be on this side of the rivalry and returning to the Trop, Wheeler said:
“It’ll definitely be weird. I spent the last 3 ½ years there, and even before that was drafted by the Rays. I spent lot of time there, but have never been there as a visitor. That will be a little different, but as soon as the game starts, everything is thrown out the window. I’ve got a job to do, they've got a job to do, get after it.’’