ST. PETERSBURG — RHP Dan Wheeler has certainly shown a flair for the dramatic.
The 30-year-old veteran has come up with three of the bullpen's most memorable, and nerve-racking, holds, including one Saturday against the Angels.
Wheeler entered in the eighth, inheriting a 1-0 lead thanks to a strong start from ace LHP Scott Kazmir. He walked the first two batters, and after a nice diving grab by Carlos Pena at first to rob Erick Aybar of extra bases, Vladimir Guerrero was intentionally walked to load the bases.
But Wheeler got Torii Hunter to pop out to Pena and pinch-hitter Garret Anderson to ground out to end the threat.
"Once again, (Wheeler) pulled kind of a Houdini act getting out of some serious trouble," manager Joe Maddon said.
This stressful setup evoked memories of his work — dubbed "miraculous" by Maddon — in Thursday's 13-inning win in Toronto. He struck out the side in the 10th after a leadoff triple, stranding the bases loaded. That followed his hold against the Red Sox on April 25, when he got Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz with one out and two on.
"It's okay if I go out there and have a little less drama," Wheeler said Saturday.
But the Rays bullpen, one of the best in the majors, likely wouldn't be where it is without Wheeler, who has a 1.35 ERA. Maddon said a reason the workhorse has been more effective than last season (when he was 0-5 with a 5.76 ERA after joining the Rays in midseason) is that his slider is sharper and his fastball has more life.
So do his outings.
ON AN UPSWING: Maddon sees RF Gabe Gross slowly putting things together at the plate, pointing to his eight-pitch at-bat Friday night in the eighth that resulted in a double to left-center. Gross, acquired April 23 from the Brewers, is still batting .200 with Tampa Bay, but after going 2-for-19 in his first eight games as a Ray, he has five hits in his past 16 at-bats, including two homers.
"From what I've seen primarily, he's been a lot of pull (hitting) since he's been here," Maddon said. "I know (hitting coach Steve Henderson) has been in his ear a lot about staying inside the ball and using the whole field. So (the double) was a big at-bat."
REHAB RUMBLINGS: Relievers Gary Glover and Al Reyes threw bullpen sessions at the Trop on Saturday afternoon, and both went well, Maddon said. Reyes (biceps tendonitis) said he felt better than he did after Thursday's session. He is scheduled to throw an inning in extended spring Monday. Glover (shoulder tendinitis) will get re-evaluated today, and Maddon said he's close to being activated.
CUSTOM CUTS: The Rays pitchers have been taking batting practice recently in preparation for next week's interleague series with the Cardinals, and they're swinging no ordinary lumber. Most of the hurlers own custom-made bats with their names engraved. Maddon said he still owns a Louisville Slugger with his name on it from 1976: "It's cracked, but I still have it."
The Rays will use special pink bats produced by Louisville Slugger today for Mother's Day/Breast Cancer Awareness Day.
Et CETERA: Kazmir became the club's career wins leader with 36. He broke a tie with, of all people, Victor Zambrano, for whom he was traded in 2004. … Tampa Bay won its franchise-record eighth straight home game and is a franchise-best four games over .500 for the fourth time — and later than it has ever been so.
Joe Smith can be reached at