Wheeler continues to be hot topic
After stellar outing in Game 2, veteran reliever is all the rage
BOSTON -- The Rays did not work out at Fenway Park on Sunday afternoon following their early-morning effort to win Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, and Dan Wheeler wasn't among the players who made the trip to the ballpark for media availability.
Still, mere hours after Wheeler's 3 1/3 innings of solid relief, though, it was difficult not to talk about him. Foremost among the topics of conversation for the coaching staff was what he could do for an encore.
Given Wheeler's confidence after the game, he might actually get a chance in Game 3 on Monday afternoon if his team needs him.
"I want to check with him [Monday], first and foremost," manager Joe Maddon said. "That was a lot of pitches and a lot of emotion. So if you knew Danny like we know Danny, he's going to say that right out of the chute, but we'll see how he feels today. I'd rather wait until the day when all the emotion wears off and then we'll ask him [Monday]."
The confidence in Wheeler's voice was apparent when he was asked minutes after his outing. After all, it was Wheeler who convinced Maddon in the first place that he felt well enough to go out for a third, then a fourth inning Saturday.
"I think it'll be OK," Wheeler said. "I mean, luckily we have [Sunday] off. We'll just kind of prepare and keep doing my routine that I've been doing throughout the year, and I think I'll be OK. The good thing was there weren't too many pitches. That's good. Hey, it doesn't matter [at] this time of year. You've got to be ready to go."
It would not be surprising to Wheeler's pitching coach if he's able to go. Jim Hickey was in the same coaching role in 2005 with the Astros, where Wheeler entered in the 13th inning against the Braves in the National League Division Series and lasted through the 15th without a run allowed.
When Wheeler came back into the dugout after Saturday's ninth inning, Hickey knew that Wheeler was going to make his case to stay in the game, that he would be fine.
"How big was it? It was behemothian," Hickey said, taking a vocabulary twist from Maddon. "It couldn't get any bigger. It was gigantic."
Hickey was also the pitching coach when Wheeler pitched three scoreless innings for the Astros in a must-win game at Pittsburgh in the final week of the 2006 season. He bounced back from that to record the final out for a save at Atlanta three days later.
This time, he would have one less day to rest. The question of arm endurance was up for conversation while Wheeler was still in Saturday's game.
"We had a conversation last night prior to sending him out there for, I believe, part of the third inning and even the fourth inning," Hickey said. "I had seen him do it before in Houston, where he would pitch two-plus innings, three-plus innings, parts of four innings, extra-inning games where it was do-or-die, winner-go-home type of a thing. I told Joe he would be fine, and I knew he would be fine, and I've seen him also rebound from that well."
Most of the Rays hadn't seen it. They were understandably impressed.
"That was intense," first baseman Carlos Pena said on Sunday. "He pitched his heart out. I was so proud of him, just because he kept coming and maintained his poise. He was able to stay focused in the midst of so much chaos, yet he does what he did. After the game, I grabbed him, gave him a big hug and told him I was so proud of him, not because of the result, but the way he handled himself.
"That's not that easy to do. There's 40,000 people out there. The game is on the line. One run is huge. And yet, he's able to go out and do what he did."
Clearly, the mental endurance Wheeler showed impressed Pena. It also has resonated with Hickey, who said Wheeler brought a sense of professionalism and accountability when he came back to the Rays via a trade last year.
The ability to rebound physically is going to be the question Monday. It isn't being ruled out.
"I would anticipate that he would be able to pitch Monday," Hickey said. "But I would also agree with what Joe said -- just wait until the emotion type of stuff goes away and then see where we are. But I would be surprised if he wasn't available."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.