McAdam: Wheeler working toward relevance


McAdam: Wheeler working toward relevance

By Sean McAdam Red Sox Insider Follow @sean_mcadam
BALTIMORE -- He arrived as a free agent from the Tampa Bay Rays, and not much of anything has gone right in his first half-season in Boston.

His poor first month with the Red Sox forced the team to adjust his role, and that, too, has taken some adjustment.

But in the Red Sox' 15-10 win over the Baltimore Orioles Monday night, there was hope -- again -- that just maybe, he could salvage the season and be a factor over the final 2 12 months.

Carl Crawford?

Think again.

Try Dan Wheeler.

Crawford's once and present teammate -- in Tampa Bay and again with the Red Sox -- has had some of the same growing pains as the speedy outfielder, but thanks to his position and a far more modest salary, the scrutiny hasn't been the same.

For Wheeler, however, the disappointment has been just as acute.

In the previous three seasons with the Rays, Wheeler was among the league leaders in in appearances, holds, and opponents batting average.

He earned a reputation for durability and consistency.

But like Crawford, his first season in Boston began poorly. In his first dozen appearances for the Sox, Wheeler pitched to a 10.03 ERA, allowing a whopping 18 hits in his first 11 23 innings. He was scored upon in half his appearances.

The slow start forced Terry Francona and pitching coach Curt Young to use him mostly when the Red Sox were trailing, a glorified mop-up man.

That, of course, had not been the plan. Wheeler was to be one of the team's seventh-inning options, capable of getting righthanders out with ease. Instead, he was designated as the guy to go to when a game got out of hand.

But since the second week of June, there has been steady improvement in Wheeler's game. Dating back to June 11, he's compiled a 2.45 ERA, with 12 strikeouts and just eight hits allowed in his last 14 23 innings.

And on Monday, it's likely the Red Sox would not have outslugged and held off the woeful Orioles had it not been for Wheeler. After Tim Wakefield was rocked for five runs in the fifth inning, Francona had few options.

He still had 4 13 innings of relief to fill and was without Daniel Bard, Alfredo Aceves and Matt Albers, his three most reliable relievers before Jonathan Papelbon.

In stepped Wheeler, with 2 13 hitless, scoreless innings, taking the Sox into the seventh.

"Understanding what we went through (Sunday in the 16-inning marathon in Tampa), I was one of the fresh arms,'' said Wheeler, ''so I wanted to do everything I could to get a couple of innings out there and get through the game.''

Wheeler has made an effort to ensure that his mechanics are sound and that in his delivery, he's directed toward the plate and not "leaking toward the first base dugout.''

But the turnaround involves more than that. There's been a sharper cut fastball of late and some believe that he's benefited from more regular work.

The latter, of course, has been part of his Catch-22 since the beginning of the season: Generally, the more Wheeler throws, the more effective he is. But because he had pitched poorly, it was difficult for him to get the ball as often as he would like. And around and around it went. A calf pull in May sidelined him for better than two weeks in May, further taking him out of the mix while roles were being earned and established in the bullpen.

"It's never easy,'' admitted Wheeler."Over your career, you get to that point where you want to be 'that guy,' you know, protecting the lead late in the game. But I think we all understand, I didn't start off the way I wanted to, the way any of us wanted to. I'm sure the team wasn't rooting for that.

"So you just kind of work your way back. That's all I'm doing from this day forward. I'm not worried about what's happened in the past. I can't control that. I can only control what I do today.''

Wheeler can't complain about not being one of the team's first choices in high leverage innings because he knows his poor first six weeks put him in that situation. For now, he focuses on doing the job when he's called upon, regardless of the score.

But he longs to be part of the big spots in the big games again.

"That's everything,'' said Wheeler, "that's everything. Everyone wants to be out there (then). And I'm not saying 'I want to be that guy.' I just want to give them another option because I feel like we have a group down there that can do that, every one of us. That would make us that much stronger as the season goes on.

"I know the first month or so of the season, that's not me. I want to go out there and I want to prove to everybody, to me, that I still have it.''

Three years ago, he reached the World Series, but Tampa lost to the Phillies. At 33, his goal is to win a championship.

"I still don't have that,'' he said, "and that's the only thing that's ever mattered to me. I want a ring.''

And he'd prefer to do it as a contributor, not a bystander.

Sean McAdam can be reached at Follow Sean on Twitter at http:twitter.comsean_mcadam

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