1-2-3 Inning: Dan Wheeler

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1-2-3 Inning: Dan Wheeler

By Jessica Camerato
CSNNE.com Follow @JCameratoNBA

Welcome to the third edition of 1-2-3 Inning, a step inside the Boston Red Sox bullpen and a look at the individuals who make up this cohesive unit. We have brought you unique glimpses at Alfredo Aceves and Matt Albers . . . now up, Dan Wheeler.

After pitching for the Tampa Bay Rays, New York Mets, and Houston Astros, the Rhode Island native is playing closer to home this season. Wheeler, a 33-year-old right-handed reliever, has posted a record of 2-2 with a 4.31 ERA in 46 games. In this edition of 1-2-3 Inning, he talked to CSNNE.com about honing his game in the desert, going from an expansion team to one of the most storied franchises in baseball, and turning a childhood dream into a reality.

1. Wheeler graduated from Pilgrim High School in Warwick, Rhode Island, packed his bags, and moved nearly 3,000 miles from home to improve his baseball skills. His time out west eventually landed him in Florida, the first step in a career that would lead back to New England.

I went to college in Arizona, so that was a big step for me. I was 17 years old when I graduated high school and I went to a little, small junior college in central Arizona. It was halfway between Phoenix and Tucson. If you know anything about Arizona, theres nothing out there, middle of the desert. Thats kind of where it all started for me. I wasnt drafted out of high school. I went out there and started playing more baseball than I ever had in my life. We were practicing every day because theres really no restrictions in junior college. Im throwing every day, throwing bullpens three times a week. Thats when I started building some arm strength and throwing harder than I did in high school. I was topping out at maybe 85 (miles per hour) in high school and by the time the fall semester was over, I was throwing 92, 93. Then I started to open some eyes to scouts.

2. Wheeler was drafted by the then-Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the 34th round of the 1996 amateur draft (he signed with the team in 1997). As the Red Sox begin a three-game series against the Rays on Friday, Wheeler has seen the development of the organization from the start. Starting his career with an expansion team gave him a different perspective once he joined one of the most historic organizations in all of sports.

I signed with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays at the time. I figured, You know what? Expansion team, maybe if you do something good you might have a quicker chance to get to the big leagues. . . . I think playing for an expansion team, theyre looking for an identity. I think that was the most important thing. It took them a while to get their identity. I think they have a great game plan now because I started off in Tampa, they released me (in 2001) and I went to a couple different spots before I actually went back to Tampa again (in 2007), so to see the two ways the organization was, one was just trying to sort of survive and the other one, we were a team to be reckoned with. That was kind of fun to be part of that from one aspect to the next. But coming to Boston, you know what to expect. You expect to win every single day, so thats really great to be a part of. You know the history and the drought that the Red Sox had, and then all of a sudden were a team that legitimately can win the World Series every year.

3. As a child watching baseball in New England, Wheeler always dreamt of playing for the Red Sox. He didnt know if that fantasy would become a reality, though, so he dedicated himself to becoming a professional baseball player first and foremost. Now that hes in Boston, he is focused on helping the Red Sox win, rather than the fact that hes on the team.

Growing up in Rhode Island, I never even really thought about playing for the Red Sox. When I was a kid, I absolutely wanted to, but my main goal was to make it to the big leagues. I didnt care where I played -- I just wanted to become a big-league pitcher. This offseason when the opportunity arose for me to become a Red Sox, I kind of jumped at it. I was really excited about it. My family was definitely excited about it, me being up here more instead of just three times a year coming in as the enemy (laughs) . . . Im not going to think about it too much now. I try to live in the moment as much as I can. I think when its all said and done and Im retired thats when I can reflect back on things and say, Ok ,that was kind of cool. But right now I know its cool, believe me, dont take that the wrong way (laughs), but I think that stuff sidetracks what the ultimate goal is. You try everything in your power just to try to help win todays game. I think thats the thing for everybody. You throw out personal statistics, personal goals because at the end of the day, if you want to win, thats the most important thing. When youre in this clubhouse thats all you want to do. I think whatever you can do to help this team win a game, youve done your job.

Jessica Camerato is on Twitter at http:twitter.com!JCameratoNBA.

Here’s a switch: Red Sox last in A.L. in HRs, but first in steals

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Here’s a switch: Red Sox last in A.L. in HRs, but first in steals

BOSTON - It's an admittedly small sample size, but somehow, after the first 21 games of the season, the Red Sox' offense is going against type.
     
The Sox are somehow last in the American League in homers, but first in stolen bases.
     
The Red Sox have successfully stolen 20 of 22 bases, for a 90.9 percent success rate. The 20 steals are the most through the first 21 games of a season for a Red Sox team since 1995, when they had 21.
     
By contrast, the Sox needed 51 games last season to steal their 20th base.
     
"We spend quite a bit of time studying our opposition,'' said John Farrell, "and if there are certain things that might present opportunities for us, we'll look to take advantage of those as best possible. I think it speaks to the attention to detail. The success rate of stolen bases is not just a function of speed - it's clearly our guys being aware of certain things and paying close attention and staying focused to capitalize.''
     
Farrell wouldn't detail who has the "green light'' to run on their own, but pointed out that there are triggers of sorts for players to run.
     
"Guys are trusting the information being provided and exposed to,'' he said. "They take it upon themselves at that point.''
     
In 2013, when the Sox won the World Series, they were similarly aggressive and took advantage of chances to run and take extra bases.
     
"You try to create a characteristic of your team,'' Farrell offered. "Certainly, a lot is going to be dependent on the talent of your team, depending on your roster. We can't create speed for guys [where] it just isn't there. But in combination with that, there's the mental side  of it, paying attention and playing smart baseball. I think that's  what we're saying.''
     
Farrell also recalls the downside of that same aggressiveness when, in 2014, just one year removed, the Sox ran into a lot of early outs on the bases.
     
"Stolen bases are valuable, but giving away outs is not, obviously,'' said Farrell, who recalled reining in some baserunners who weren't successful. "As long as guys are trusting [of the program] and understand what's acceptable - there are certain game situations where the runner, in his mind, has got to be 100 percent sure he's going to get that extra 90 feet.''
     
Beyond the extra bases, Farrell likes the idea of putting pressure on the defense and distracting the pitcher on the mound.''
     
Of the two caught stealing the Red Sox have had, one was Tuesday night in Atlanta when a planned hit-and-run backfired as Brock Holt swung and missed and Travis Shaw was cut down at third. That means, incredibly, that the Sox have been thrown out just once in a true steal attempt.
     
As far as homers, the Sox have hit just 17 homers, ranking them 15th in the American League. Only two other teams Texas (19) and Cleveland (18) have fewer than 20 homers.
     
"I don't know what to make of that,'' Farrell noted. "I do know this: our offense is working well as a unit [leading the league in runs scored]. We've used the whole field. We play in a ballpark that's a really good doubles ballpark (the Sox are far and away the leaders there with 59; next best in the A.L. is Houston with 46) and hopefully that's playing to our advantage.
     
"But the overall approach - the situational hitting, that's been really good. I think our guys have a pretty good vibe about themselves offensively.''
     
In the Red Sox lineup, only two hitters -- Mookie Betts (four) and David Ortiz (three) -- have more than two homers.
     

Thursday's lineups: Red Sox vs. Braves

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Thursday's lineups: Red Sox vs. Braves

BOSTON -- The Red Sox and Braves play the finale of their home-and-home, four-game series tonight . . . to the Sox' dismay, no doubt.

Boston has won the first three games by a combined score of 21-8, extending its overall winning streak to four. The Sox have also won five of their last six, and six of their last eight, as they've closed to within a half-game of the first-place Orioles in the A.L. East. In addition, they now hold one of the two A.L. wild-card positions.

The lineups:

BRAVES:
Nick Markakis RF
Daniel Castro 3B
Adonis Garcia DH
Freddie Freeman 1B
A.J. Pierzynski C
Jeff Francoeur LF
Jace Peterson 2B
Erick Aybar SS
Mallex Smith CF
---
Jhoulys Chacin P

RED SOX:
Mookie Betts RF
Dustin Pedroia 2B
Xander Bogaerts SS
David Ortiz DH
Hanley Ramirez 1B
Travis Shaw 3B
Chris Young LF
Jackie Bradley Jr. CF
Christian Vazquez C
---
Clay Buchholz P

Hanigan on handling the knuckler: ‘It’s always a battle’

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Hanigan on handling the knuckler: ‘It’s always a battle’

BOSTON - Major league catchers take a beating behind the plate. It goes with the territory.
      
There are foul tips off fingers, jarring blows to facemasks and, even in the aftermath of new rules regarding slides, vicious collisions with baserunners.
      
Those are all well-known parts of the job. Goes with the territory, catchers will shrug and say.
      
But what happened to Ryan Hanigan Wednesday night -- and last Friday night in Houston, for that matter -- was a different sort of test.
      
It was Hanigan's job to coral Steven Wright's knuckleball, dipping and darting in most unpredictable ways. Even the Atlanta Braves hitters seemingly had an easier time hitting the pitch than Hanigan did catching it.
      
Forget 99-mph fastballs; the toughest pitch for a catcher to handle is a knuckler that may not top 75 mph. 
      
From the second through the fourth inning, Hanigan battled and boxed balls, almost blocking and tackling them -- when he wasn't chasing them to the backstop, that is.
      
"It was really dancing tonight,'' said Hanigan after the Red Sox' 9-4 win over Atlanta. "I think the wind played a factor. It was going all over the place.''
      
And, so, at times, was Hanigan, scrambling to keep the ball in  front of him, and, occasionally, going to retrieve it.
      
In the fourth inning, Erick Aybar reached on a strikeout passed ball, took second base, and eventually third on two more passed balls. He was one more floating, errant knuckler away from circling the bases despite never making contact with a pitch, or being advanced by a teammate making contact.
      
All Hanigan could do was hold on -- make that try to hold on -- for dear life.
      
"I was talking to the [home plate] umpire back there,'' chuckled Hanigan. "It was going up, down, left, right...It's always a battle. It's tough - every time I catch it, it's a small victory. Some days, it's more consistent in the way it moves. Some days, it's darting left and right and all over. It was one of those nights. I struggled a little bit with some of them back there.
      
"You're not going to catch all of them. That's just how it is. You have to try to stay positive, try working with him back there, keep him in his rhythm and [have him] throw as many strikes as he can.''
      
Problem is, even the strikes can be difficult to catch. At the last possible instant, the knuckleball can evade Hanigan's mitt, like a butterfly eluding capture. 
      
Wright can't help but have some sympathy for his batterymate.
      
"There's times where it can get frustrating [for him],’’ said Wright. "He does a great job. I can't give enough credit to him and what he's done.''
      
The paradox, of course, is that Wright wants the ball to move as much as possible to confound the hitters. Hanigan does too, but he has to deal with the consequences.
      
"The ones that stay high,'' he explained, "you expect a little drop. But they just don't. They tip off the top [of the catcher's mitt]. Those are tough. He had them really darting tonight. It just takes a  left turn on me. Those are tough. But that's what you want. So I just try to knock 'em down.
      
"You just can't really anticipate which way it's going to go. One will go right, one will go left, one will be flat, one will kind of  take off. And I think the wind [is a factor]. It helps [Wright].’’
      
While at the same time, hurting Hanigan.
      
Wright lasted seven innings, allowing just one unearned run.  Hanigan then went back to conventional pitchers Tommy Layne and Matt Barnes.
      
"Man, when I put the other glove on...it's all gravy after that,'' he said. "There's predictability as to which way the ball is going to move, at least to some extent. With the knuckleball, it does what it wants.''
      
And it's Hanigan's thankless task to catch it. Or chase after it.