McAdam: Wheeler working toward relevance

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McAdam: Wheeler working toward relevance

By Sean McAdam
CSNNE.com 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 smcadam@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Sean on Twitter at http:twitter.comsean_mcadam

McAdam: Will this be Clay Buchholz's last start?

McAdam: Will this be Clay Buchholz's last start?

With Wright and Rodriguez set to return, Sean McAdam joins SNC to discuss whether Tuesday’s game against the Rays will be the last start for Clay Buchholz.

Quotes, notes and stars: Buchholz hopes he's made a case to stay in rotation

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Quotes, notes and stars: Buchholz hopes he's made a case to stay in rotation

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Quotes, notes and stars from the Red Sox' 2-1 win over Tampa Bay Rays.

 

QUOTES:

"I didn't know I could really do that.'' - Mookie Betts, who marveled at his throw from the right field corner which nailed Kevin Kiermaier -- attempting to stretch a double into a triple -- at third in the eighth inning.

"He's playing a huge role for us right now. He's stepped in, he's built his arm strength and given us almost 13 very strong innings the last two outings.'' - John Farrell on Clay Buchholz.

"I don't know that we ever lost faith in the talent of Clay. He was in a rut for quite some time. . . But the jolt that he's given us from the spot starts he's made, he's kept us rolling.'' - Farrell on Buchholz.

"You'd have to ask John about that. I have no idea. I've tried to make the most of (the opportunity) and if a decision has to be made, make it a hard one.'' - Buchholz, when asked if he's made a case to stay in the rotation.

 

NOTES:

* The Red Sox improved to a season-best 17 games over .500

* The win was just the fourth for the Red Sox this season when scoring two or one runs.

* The win was the first for Clay Buchholz as a starter since May 9.

* David Ortiz moved into sixth place on the Red Sox' all-time hit list, passing Bobby Doerr with 2.043 hits.

* Ortiz extended his hitting streak to 10 games and has reached base in 16 straight.

* Andrew Benintendi recorded his eighth multi-hit game, the first Red Sox player to do so in his first 20 games since Jacoby Ellsbury in 2007

* Mookie Betts recorded his 10th outdield assist, placing him third among major league right fielders.

* Craig Kimbrel has a 1.08 ERA in save situations this year and 6.06 in non-save situations.

* Kimbrel has recorded a save in each of his last five appearances.

 

STARS:

1) Clay Buchholz

To say that this was Buchholz's best start of the season is to damn with faint praise, since there haven't been many good ones. But this was very good: 6 1/3 innings, one run on five hits with a season-high nine strikeouts.

2) Mookie Betts

Betts has only been a pro outfielder for a little more than two years, but that didn't look to be the case when he fired a strike from the right field corner to cut down a baserunner at third with one out in the eighth inning.

3) Craig Kimbrel

Kimbrel was dominant in the ninth, protecting a one-run lead with two strikeouts and a soft lineout to left.