ST. PETERSBURG — Growing up a Red Sox fan, Rays reliever Dan Wheeler said his one big baseball dream was to pitch at Fenway Park.
Wheeler made the 45-minute trek from his hometown of Warwick, R.I., for a few games a year, watching his favorite Sox such as Mike Greenwell and Wade Boggs.
In the same way, Rays outfielder Rocco Baldelli, who grew up in Woonsocket, R.I., said his father would wrangle tickets by the visiting dugout, where they once watched Ellis Burks come off the disabled list to hit a double.
"The atmosphere at those games is unlike any atmosphere for any other sporting event in the entire country," Baldelli said.
That's why, for Wheeler and Baldelli, the American League Championship Series against the Red Sox could be especially sweet. And it's not just because their families have shorter trips for the games in Boston.
They've played against the Red Sox — and at Fenway — before. But the stakes (a World Series berth) have never been higher. And both, with Wheeler potentially closing games and Baldelli likely to start Monday's Game 3 at Fenway, could play big roles.
"Growing up a Red Sox fan, that was it for me," Wheeler said. "Now I get a chance to go back there and experience, on the field, going up against those guys. It's going to be wild. I don't know if I can explain it until I actually go through it."
Wheeler laughed at how it took him until his eighth season — last year with Tampa Bay — to finally pitch at Fenway. Wheeler took the mound on Aug. 14, his team clinging to a 1-0 lead.
"It was nerve-racking," said Wheeler, who pitched a perfect eighth in a game the Rays lost 2-1. "It felt like almost my first outing in the big leagues."
Wheeler, 30, said facing the Red Sox in Fenway, "brings out a whole new level in me," and it shows. He is 3-0 overall with a 2.79 ERA against the Red Sox, including two wins in September.
Both said one of the toughest parts was divvying up their six-ticket allotment for the games at Fenway. Wheeler said with 50 family members, it was hard to say, "Hey, Mom and Dad, here you go. Everyone else watch on TV."
Baldelli, 27, said his family is probably more excited than he is as he's trying to stay focused. He hasn't allowed the thought that his emotional comeback from a career-threatening mitochondrial disorder might include starting in rightfield in Fenway to sink in.
"Being out there, to hopefully help this team get to the next level, it'd be a sweet victory," Wheeler said. "For me, it's going to be sweet no matter what."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.