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“Utter Joy” Dan Wheeler reflects on the Rays journey to the ALCS in 2008

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2008 ALCS Game 7 Photo by Brian Blanco/Bradenton Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Halfway down a Tropicana Field aisle that separated sections 120 and 122 an eight-year-old boy sat on the edge of his seat. In a matter of hours he would have to wake up and go to school, but that was of little consequence. His ears rang from the constant clanking of cowbells and his vocal cords strained for late life. His hands throbbed from beating the back of the chair in front of him. The date was October 19th, 2008 and the Rays and Red Sox were battling for the chance to appear in the Fall Classic. It was the eighth inning of Game 7 of the American League Championship Series.

After reaching on an error to lead off the top half of the inning, Alex Cora stood at first and watched as Joe Maddon made his way to the mound to make a call to the bullpen. Matt Garza’s night had come to an end after seven plus innings of one run, two hit baseball against the defending world champion Red Sox. As he departed to a raucous standing ovation and tipped his cap to the Tampa Bay faithful, Dan Wheeler made his way to the mound.

Over the course of the past seven innings, 40,743 strong had just witnessed the greatest and gutsiest postseason pitching performance in Tampa Bay Rays history. It was mayhem. Cameras flashed, cowbells rattled, hands clapped, and voices screamed in appreciation.

As Wheeler warmed, the potential tying and go-ahead runs awaited near the third base dugout in the form of Coco Crisp and Dustin Pedroia. In all likelihood, the game would be decided then and there. The score: 3-1.

It was fitting that Wheeler was on the mound in that moment, with the Rays’ season hanging in the balance, because he knew better than anyone else just how far the Rays had come to reach this point. He knew the weight that exact moment carried. He knew what the moment meant for his franchise. He knew of all the hardships the franchise and fanbase had gone through, because he lived them. He knew, and this is the story of the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays.

***

On July 28th, 2007 Dan Wheeler was called into his manager’s office and informed that he had been traded back to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Wheeler, who was 29 at the time, had been drafted by the Devil Rays in the 34th round of the 1996 draft. He would make his debut three years later and remain with the team until his release following the 2001 season. Now, six years later he was returning to the city that gave him his start. The only catch? They were twenty five games out of first place.

Nonetheless, Wheeler was happy. “When I got traded back I went from Houston to Tampa Bay. I was excited. I was coming home to play.”

Tampa Bay Rays v Kansas City Royals Photo by John Williamson/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Quickly, he realized that this Devil Rays team was different. “When I get traded to Tampa we were 25 games back. So I was like, ‘Alright, what am I walking into?’ You know? But I realized very quickly that this team that I got traded to was not a 25-game-back team. We had a lot of talent with C.C. (Carl Crawford) and B.J. Upton.”

“I immediately realized that there was a lot of talent not only on the offensive and defensive side, but James Shields and Scott Kazmir. You know, that was a pretty good 1-2 punch if you ask me.”

But, in Wheeler’s opinion, the turning point for the team that would follow in 2008 was that offseason. “The offseason was I think, the biggest part. Going in and making a trade and getting Garza and Bartlett.”

The six player deal with the Twins that sent Delmon Young and prospects to Minnesota in exchange for Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, and an additional prospect set the tone for the upcoming season. Garza brought depth to a young starting staff and finished the year 11-9 with a 3.70 earned run average across 184.2 innings of work. Bartlett would go on to have an outstanding year, finishing 18th in the MVP race.

Over the course of the offseason, the soon to be Tampa Bay Rays would go on to add additional depth in the form of veterans Cliff Floyd, Eric Hinske, and Troy Percival.

Wheeler, a major component of the Rays’ bullpen in 2008, acknowledged that from the start of spring training, the Rays felt they could compete and that manager Joe Maddon played a big role in that. “I think there was a sense that we could compete. And, I think that it definitely started with Joe Maddon. He kind of came to camp that year and threw out that 9=8 saying.”

“He was an outside of the box thinker and still is but it made a lot of sense to me and I think it made a lot of sense to other people. What’s crazy is that it was and we just bought into it.”

The 9=8 saying would go on to become a mantra for the Rays in 2008. The main idea behind the concept was that if they could add nine wins on the offensive, defensive, and pitching sides of the game, then they would emerge as one of the eight teams to make it into October. The goal was to finish twenty-seven wins better than they had the year before, when they finished with a 66-96 record. A year later they finished 97-65. The formula had worked, exceeding expectations.

Boston Red Sox v Tampa Bay Rays, Game 7 Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Maddon, a manager known for his quirky ways and sayings, was the perfect man to lead the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008. The clubhouse was made up of a mix of well established veterans, young players with minimal service time under their belts, and rookies. Wheeler praised Maddon's efforts behind the scenes saying, “The clubhouse was always as relaxed as it could be. That was the one thing that Joe did a tremendous job of.”

One of the most relaxing and memorable components to the clubhouse? Costumes. “What definitely helped was all the costume dressing up and I think that was a big part of our personality in that clubhouse.

The relaxed clubhouse, 9=8 approach, and new arrivals all contributed to the Rays’ winning ways in 2008. At home, the club was unstoppable going 57-24, something that Wheeler attributes to the team’s stellar defense and pitching, “You know pitching wins and I think the defense which I don’t think goes overlooked, but when you breakdown to looking at our defense, that a very friendly place to pitch.”

“When you have guys who could go out and catch and throw the baseball like we did that year you attack the zone. They gave you a certain confidence.”

With an infield highlighted by Evan Longoria and Jason Bartlett and an outfield led by Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton, Wheeler put it plainly, “With that crew behind you, it’s pretty hard not to (attack).”

Going into October, the Rays were red hot. In the final forty-five games, the Rays went an impressive 34-11. As they approached their first postseason in franchise history, there was no fear of slowing down. Looking back on the clubhouse and their vibe going into October, Wheeler explained, “If you do it over the course of a major league baseball season, it’s not a fluke.” He continued, “There was never a doubt and if there was nobody ever showed it.”

But, what about all of those rookies and players who had never played in October? Well, Wheeler offered his praise, “The levels of confidence that that team showed was years ahead of their service.”

After blowing through the ALDS with a 3-1 series win over the White Sox, there was never a “deer in the headlights” look about the team according to Wheeler.

With home field advantage in the ALCS against the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox, the Rays dropped game one by a score of 2-0. Wheeler admits that, “I think we might have been a caught a little off guard in that first game.”

But, they bounced back and came out on top of an eleven inning affair in game two. As the Rays arrived in Boston, so did their bats as they took games three and four, scoring twenty-two runs in the process. They were one win away from the World Series, but as Wheeler puts it, “If you look at that series we were unstoppable and then we couldn’t win two games and then all of a sudden it comes down to that last game which was epic.”

Epic, is an understatement.

2008 ALCS Game 7 Photo by Brian Blanco/Bradenton Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Wheeler entered the game in the eighth inning to face Coco Crisp and Dustin Pedroia. Crisp would single on the fifth pitch of the at-bat. Pedroia then stepped to the plate as the go ahead run. Wheeler induced a ground ball and gave way to J.P. Howell got slugger David Ortiz to ground out. Maddon continued to play the matchup game and removed Howell in favor of Chad Bradford. Bradford walked Kevin Youkilis to set up a bases loaded situation with two outs. The next man up? None other than the rookie, David Price.

Reflecting on that moment, Wheeler recited a story about Price:

“There was a time, I just remember they called down to the bullpen and it was the last series of the year. I think we were in Detroit and I answered the phone and I said, ‘David you are in the game.’ And, he gave me a two fist bumps of excitement. Like, ‘Yes, I can’t wait to pitch in this game.’ It didn’t matter, he just wanted to pitch. He just wanted the ball.”

So, when asked whether there was ever any doubt about Maddon’s decision to give the ball to a rookie with the season on the line, the answer was clear. “I never even thought twice about it. Actually, this is going to be really good for us. Here is a kid who is not afraid to take the ball. It doesn’t matter what the situation was or is, he was ready to go.”

Price would go on to strike out J.D. Drew on four pitches.

He returned the following half inning and walked the leadoff hitter, Jason Bay. With the tying run at the plate, Price struck out the next two hitters, Mike Kotsay and Jason Varitek. Down to their final out, the Red Sox pinch hit Jed Lowrie for Alex Cora. The rest is history.

On the 0-1 pitch, Lowrie grounded to second baseman Akinori Iwamura. What followed might be the most iconic moment in Rays’ history: Iwamura raced to second base, recorded the out, and leaped into the air.

As Wheeler raced to the mound to celebrate the franchise’s first ever American League pennant, only one emotion ran though his head, “Just joy. I mean, utter joy, because I know what it took, what it took for this organization to get to where… it took a long time.”

“There is just no better feeling. All of the hard work that was put in that year and all the moves that were made, everything just worked out perfectly. There was a sense of, I don’t know, free, freedom when you are running out there.”

Wheeler was speechless, even twelve years later. The only thing that would have felt better? Well, the answer is clear isn't it? “The only thing I can imagine that would be better is if you won the World Series.”

The Rays’ historic 2008 season came to an end the following week after they fell to the Philadelphia Phillies four games to one.

But, the significance of that season and of that team isn't lost upon Dan Wheeler and it isn't lost upon that eight-year-old boy who was seated in section 120 all those years ago.

***

In the 8th inning of last night’s game, Mike Brosseau sent the Tampa Bay Rays to their second ever ALCS with one swing of the bat, turning on a 100 mile per hour fastball from Aroldis Chapman and depositing it into the left field stands.

Joe Maddon may no longer be managing the Rays, but twelve years later Kevin Cash is the right man to lead this team. David Price and Evan Longoria play elsewhere now while Crawford, Bartlett, Shields, Garza, and Wheeler have retired.

This team is young with a spattering of veterans like Charlie Morton and Mike Zunino mixed in. Like Kazmir and Shields, they have an exciting young duo atop the rotation in Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow. Adames and Lowe hold down the middle of the infield as Aki and Bartlett did. Kevin Kiermaier and Arozarena patrol the depths of the outfield with grace and precision like Crawford and Upton.

Pitching and defense wins, just ask Dan Wheeler. It was the formula in 2008 and it is the formula again in 2020. Only time will tell if another epic game seven awaits us, only this time it will be against the Houston Astros.