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Wheeler a bright spot in bullpen
10/15/2004 11:20 PM ET
HOUSTON -- Now, more than ever, Dan Wheeler's life is baseball.

On one hand, the lifelong Red Sox fan is following that team's American League Championship Series showdown against the Yankees with the same fervor as the rest of Red Sox Nation.

On the other, he is a member of the Astros bullpen, intent on beating the favored Cardinals for a spot in the World Series.

"It's very weird," said Wheeler, who was born in Warwick, R.I. "My whole life I've rooted on the Red Sox to go to the World Series and win it. If we make it there against them, I think my family is going to be very heartbroken when we beat them."

When. A bold word, especially since both the Astros and Red Sox lost the first two games of their respective best-of-seven series. Only two teams have ever rebounded from 2-0 deficits in an LCS, none since the 1985 Cardinals came back against the Dodgers.

"These are seven-game series," Wheeler said. "These are definitely not over. I know we have to win four more, but anything can happen in this game."

Wheeler is certainly doing his part.

Save for one right arm, the Astros have found themselves short on relief in the National League Championship Series. No, that right arm is not attached to lights-out closer Brad Lidge.

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The exception has been Wheeler, a 26-year-old bright spot in what as otherwise been a disappointing bullpen this postseason.

Wheeler, a two-seam fastball specialist who thrives on ground balls, has pitched two scoreless innings in each of the first two games of the NLCS, racking up six strikeouts. He has a perfect 0.00 ERA, while the three other Astros relievers who have appeared in the NLCS -- Chad Harville (27.00 ERA), Dan Miceli (18.00) and Chad Qualls (45.00) -- have struggled.

"Bottom line is we've been pretty good at holding or stopping them from going ahead, our opponents, when we get late in the ballgame," Garner said. "We haven't done that the last couple of nights."

The secret to Wheeler's success?

"I've kept the ball down, I guess," Wheeler said. "That's the thing about this league. They're professional hitters and they're going to capitalize on mistakes.

"We haven't had the success that we've wanted. But we go out there believing that we're out here for a reason and that we can definitely get the job done. We've all done it before. We're not here on a fluke."

The Cardinals have capitalized on most of Houston's mistakes. In Game 2 alone, St. Louis hitters combined for four home runs, including Scott Rolen's two-run, fifth-inning, go-ahead homer off Harville.

But Wheeler came on and cooled the Cardinals' bats for two scoreless innings, giving the Astros a chance to come back.

Facts machine
So far, only Dan Wheeler has provided any relief for the Astros. Chad Qualls, Chad Harville and Dan Miceli have combined to post a 30.38 ERA over four appearances totaling 2 2/3 innings and have taken the loss in both Games 1 and 2 of the NLCS. None of the three has made an appearance without allowing a run.

Wheeler, however, has made two appearances and been lights out in both, going two scoreless innings each time while allowing just one hit and striking out six.

Reliever IP H ER BB K HR ERA

"Ever since he's come over here, he's thrown good," Harville said. "He came into both those games in St. Louis and showed that if you make your pitches, you're going to get these guys out."

Wheeler needed just 19 pitches to retire all six hitters he faced in Game 2. Fourteen of those pitchers were strikes, and he struck out a pair. His final out of the seventh inning was Cardinals right fielder Larry Walker, whose two-run homer off starter Pete Munro put St. Louis on the board.

Wheeler also pitched two scoreless innings in Houston's Game 1 loss, allowing a single and notching four strikeouts, and he also pitched a scoreless frame in his only Division Series stint.

He is making quite a statement, especially for a guy who did not join the Astros until late August and was used mostly in middle relief.

Wheeler began the season with the Mets, and made 32 appearances including one spot start, posting a 4.85 ERA. But he began to excel after an Aug. 27 trade injected him into Houston's playoff push.

"I know that when I got traded over here, the Mets were 13 games out and the Astros were seven games out," Wheeler said. "I remember joking with some of the guys, 'I gained seven games! This is awesome!'"

In 14 games down the stretch, Wheeler had a 2.51 ERA and held opponents scoreless in 12 of those appearances.

"When I got over here, they used me," he said. "I was able to find a rhythm."

Can he really help the Astros beat their drum into the World Series? Perhaps for a showdown against the Red Sox at Fenway Park?

"I've been there as a fan, but never as a player," Wheeler said. "What better time to go than the World Series?"

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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