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Wheeler picks up his first victory

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 2, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- It took 17 games -- eight as a starter -- five losses and 532/3 innings spread across two seasons, but in the Devil Rays' last game of 2000, Dan Wheeler got his first major-league win Sunday.

"It feels awesome," Wheeler said. "I've been dreaming about this since I was a little boy."

Wheeler, the Rays' fourth pitcher against Boston, replaced Doug Creek in the 10th inning with one out and a runner on second. Wheeler struck out Lou Merloni and, after Morgan Burkhart was intentionally walked, Donnie Sadler grounded out. Fred McGriff won it for the Devil Rays in the bottom of the inning with a run-scoring grounder.

"I was kind of surprised I won," Wheeler said. "I wasn't sure it was going to happen. ... I got in there and just wanted to throw strikes and end the season on a good note."

Wheeler was exclusively a starter in his first three professional seasons. He started this season with the Rays but was shaky and was sent to Triple-A Durham. He was recalled Sept. 4 and became a reliever. He may stay one.

"He's pitched well in that situation,"manager Larry Rothschild said. "He's got good command of the breaking ball. In relief, if you can do that, you can get through some innings.

"I wouldn't discount (Wheeler becoming a reliever). I like what I saw, so it's a possibility. He's a guy that looks like he could fit in in the bullpen."

Wheeler said he still is getting used to his new role. "I feel I've been doing a pretty decent job," he said. "It's a new thing for me, and I think I'm adjusting to it. If relieving is my best shot at making the team next year, so be it. If I start, if I relieve, it doesn't matter."

OUT OF THE PEN: While Wheeler was making himself comfortable in the bullpen, Albie Lopez was strengthing his case to be a starter.

He went eight innings Sunday for the third time in a row, and his 136 pitches were the most by any Devil Rays pitcher in a game. "His last two starts (before Sunday's), he should have gotten the win and came away with nothing," Rothschild said. "But it tells you how well he's pitched all year."

Lopez, asked if he thought he had earned a place in the starting rotation going into spring training, replied: "I don't think it matters what I do in spring training. I've already shown what I can do, and my importance to this team. No matter what I do, I have a job as a starter. There's no way I'm going back to the bullpen."

GOTCHA: The Red Sox suckered Tampa Bay into an inning-ending play at the plate when the Devil Rays tried to pull a double steal.

With Steve Cox at third after an infield single, a balk by Hector Carrasco and a single to left by Greg Vaughn, Vaughn took off for second. When catcher Scott Hatteberg made what looked like a throw to second, Cox headed home -- but the throw was to shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, who fired back home. Cox was out by 10 feet.

TICKETS, PLEASE: Last season's home attendance for 81 games was 1,562,967, an average of 19,296. This season, with one fewer game, the total (including Sunday's announced 28,043) was 1,549,412, an average of 19,368.

"It's okay," managing general partner Vince Naimoli said. "The 28-something today was encouraging. I think it's a sign of good things to come."

Naimoli said the last homestand might help attract some new fans next season, "but I think what also helps is people becoming aware. It's like any of us. You go to a new city and you don't know your way around and all. People are learning and as they learn I think they'll come."

He said he had spoken last week with commissioner Bud Selig, "telling him what our numbers look like, and he was pleased because the last two weeks (of the season) there's traditionally a drop-off with football and school and all. I think it's going to be fine."

RAYS BITS: McGriff's run-scoring grounder in the 10th inning gave Tampa Bay its 11th walk-off win, two more than in 1998-99 combined. It was his fourth as a member of the Rays and left him with 106 RBI, one short of his career high. ... Cox's 11th home run left him one shy of the Rays rookie record of 12 by Bubba Trammell in 1998, but by finishing with a .283 batting average Cox surpassed Randy Winn's rookie mark of .278, also in 1998. ... Gerald Williams' foul popup in the fifth inning was the fourth ball, and second foul ball, to be caught in a Tropicana Field catwalk. ... The Devil Rays' "Shirts off our backs" (game-worn players jerseys) weekend promotion raised $12,470 for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. It has raised about $56,000 in three years. ... The Devil Rays also collected 1,025 Teddy Bears to be used by Pinellas and Hillsborough counties' sheriffs as "trauma teddies" to comfort children involved in auto accidents and family crises.

Still on the rise

The Devil Rays became the fifth expansion team (of 14) to improve their winning percentage through their first three years. They did it by beating Boston on Sunday, and with help from Oakland. Because the Athletics didn't have to play the Sept. 17 game knocked out by Hurricane Gordon, the Rays finished with 69 victories, the same as last season, and 92 losses, one fewer than '99. Here are the teams that improved their records through the first three years:

(Team, Years, 1st Yr., 2nd Yr., 3rd Yr.)

Mets -1962-64 -.250 (40-120) -- .315 (51-111) -.327 (53-109)

Brewers -1969-71 -.395 (64-78) -.401 (65-97) -.429 (69-92)

Rockies -1993-95 -.414 (67-95) -.453 (53-64) -.535 (77-67)

Marlins-1993-95 -.395 (64-98) -- .443 (51-64) -.489 (67-76)

Devil Rays -1998-2000 -- .389 (63-99) -.426 (69-93)-.429 (69-92)

You don't say

"It's not what I've been working for my whole life. I've been working toward playing in the major leagues. If (the Devil Rays) had wanted me to be here in September this is where I would have been. But playing in the Olympics wasn't a bad second choice." -- minor league second baseman Brent Abernathy, on being a member of the gold-medal baseball team.

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