Dan Wheeler a hidden contributor

BALTIMORE -- Dan Wheeler noticed something amiss with Dustin Pedroia as soon as the Boston Red Sox reliever arrived at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Monday afternoon.

"Today was the first day when I got to the ballpark where he wasn't in full uniform," Wheeler said. "He was already here, but he was in shorts and a T-shirt."

So even Pedroia was dragging a little after Sunday night's 16-inning, 1-0 marathon win over the Tampa Bay Rays, a game the Sox second baseman won with his third hit of the night?

Well, that's not exactly what Wheeler said. The Red Sox reliever is in his first season with the club. Has he ever seen Pedroia sleep?

"No, I don't think so," he said.

Does Wheeler think Pedroia even needs to sleep?

"No," he said. "I don't think he does. I really don't. He's amazing."

Ask Pedroia's kindergarten teacher, and you'd probably discover he swaggered during his naps.

On Monday night, even though the team didn't arrive at its hotel here until after 6 a.m., Pedroia broke a 7-all tie with a two-run double, the big hit in what became an eight-run uprising in a 15-10 swamping of the Baltimore Orioles.

A night after generating just a run on five hits in 16 innings, the Sox banged out 16 hits and 15 runs, falling just a run short of their season high of 16, reached in Toronto on June 11. All this offense came despite the absence of David Ortiz, who began serving a suspension that was reduced from four to three games.

All this offense, and a middle reliever -- Wheeler -- might have played the most vital role in Boston's 12th win in 14 games this month, one that kept them 1 ½ games ahead of the New York Yankees in the American League East. That sounds a little like singling out the piccolo player after Beethoven's 9th, but consider the circumstances.

After the bullpen threw eight scoreless innings Sunday night, Sox manager Terry Francona did not have three relievers at his disposal Monday -- Matt Albers, Alfredo Aceves and Daniel Bard. Monday's starter, Tim Wakefield, was touched for a couple of first-inning runs, then was given a 6-2 lead, but missed high on a couple of knuckleballs that were hit a long way by J.J. Hardy and Adam Jones in a five-run fifth that gave the Orioles a 7-6 lead.

And there were still runners on second and third when Francona lifted Wakefield, who insisted he did not wilt in the 95-degree heat. On came Wheeler, who retired Felix Pie on a ground ball to second to end the inning, then set down six more Orioles, three on whiffs, three on infield outs, giving the Sox a chance to stage their comeback.

And consider this: While the bullpen-depleted Rays were falling to the Yankees when a kid reliever, Alex Torres, walked home the winning run in the ninth inning in his major league debut (he was returned to the minors after the game), the short-handed Francona was able to summon the veteran Wheeler, and he responded beautifully.

"That's something I work on every day," Wheeler said afterward. "I may not be going into those situations on a daily basis like some of the guys here, but there are going to be times like today that I'm going to need to step up and do my part."

Granted, the better part of this season has been an exercise in frustration for Wheeler, who was plucked from the Rays' bullpen at a premium rate for his role ($3 million) but tanked early and ultimately was placed on the 15-day disabled list with what was called a strained calf but was really just an exercise to give Wheeler a chance to gather himself.

To his credit, during a rehab stint in Pawtucket, Wheeler did just that. And because he could draw on big league experience that began in 1999 with the Rays, and included stints with the Mets, Astros and Rays again, Wheeler trusted that there would yet come a time that he would make a difference for the Sox.

"Knowing that there will be rough stretches now and then, it's all in how you come out of it," he said. "As long as you have a level head, you'll be fine. You work hard to make sure you do whatever you can to turn it around."

Yet even with his experience, Wheeler acknowledged that his early travails had left him shaken.

"I'd like to say no [it didn't], but I think I'd be lying, any one of us would be lying," he said. "When you go through tough times like that, you eventually know there will be a time when you get out of it, but it seems like an eternity. Part of it is you beat yourself up to make yourself work harder -- 'There's an answer for this, I'm going to fix it' -- I think that's what we all go through."

While Wheeler struggled early, Albers emerged as another setup option for Francona to Bard, who has held opponents scoreless in his past 20 appearances, spanning 21 ⅔ innings, the longest such streak by a reliever this season. When Wheeler pitches now, it's often with the Sox either well ahead or well behind.

But with Bobby Jenks on the DL for a third time, Wheeler could give the Sox a big lift if he can demonstrate to Francona that he can be trusted in more pressure situations.

"I want him to have confidence in me, to throw me out in those situations when Bard or our guys in the middle to late innings need a day off," he said. "We need everybody healthy. Health is such an important part of this game. You can't wear one or two guys out because you really need them in October, and October is the most important thing."

Wheeler knows something about October. This has been noted before, but the two times Wheeler's wife, Stephanie, gave birth to a son, Wheeler's team went to the World Series -- the Astros in 2005, the Rays in 2008. Both times his team lost. Before this season, Stephanie and Dan had a daughter.

"This time," he said, "we've got to take it all the way."

That's a journey he doesn't want to miss.

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.