Rays veteran relievers instruct, encourage

ST. PETERSBURG — Andy Sonnanstine said he got "goose bumps" when Dan Wheeler told him about his experience pitching in the National League Championship Series.

When touted pitching prospects Jake McGee and Wade Davis had rocky spring debuts, it was veteran left-hander Trever Miller who was the first to drop by their lockers the next day.

"You'll be fine," he told them.

Though closer Troy Percival works the clubhouse like a maitre d' — and is typically in the middle of the team's tomfoolery — soft-spoken relievers Wheeler and Miller offer subtle lessons in professionalism that "are just as effective," manager Joe Maddon said.

Both Wheeler, 30, and Miller, 34, boast playoff experience from their last stint in Houston (Wheeler pitched in the 2005 World Series). But according to pitching coach Jim Hickey, the duo's mental and physical approach every day is what the doctor ordered for a beleaguered bullpen that racked up a 6.16 ERA and allowed 360 runs (among the most in the past half-century).

"I don't think we necessarily needed more talent. I don't know if we necessarily needed different personnel. I think we what we lacked the most was that sense of professionalism, that sense of what it takes to get the job done day in, day out — what it takes to get through the grind," Hickey said. "And I think (Miller and Wheeler) have brought that."

Both were groomed a bit by former Astros reliever Russ Springer, whom Hickey described as the "patriarch of the clubhouse." Each delivers his message differently.

Wheeler said he tries to lead by example while coming across as a pitcher "other guys feel comfortable coming to." It's a role Wheeler is still easing into. After all, it wasn't long ago that the Warwick, R.I., native was "the young one" in a veteran-laden Mets clubhouse and soaking in knowledge from Springer in Houston. Even with the Rays, Wheeler, a pingpong fanatic, has often gone head to head with the 25-year-old Sonnanstine in heated matches.

"It's a little weird, kind of hard for me to comprehend," Wheeler said of the "veteran" moniker. "When I was with the Mets (in 2003-04), three guys in our bullpen had 20, 17 and 13 years in the league. So I'm like, 'Wow, I'm only at five.'  "

Miller, a left-handed specialist who signed a one-year deal last month, isn't afraid of challenging himself, whether that's through his daily crossword puzzles or by training for a marathon. Likewise, he has approached many young Rays, including Jason Hammel, comparing notes on how they warm up before outings.

Though Miller (4.86 ERA) and Wheeler (5.30) struggled at times last season, their proven track records put insecurities aside.

"When you get to the playoff guys, they are more apt to share their information to where they don't feel threatened," Maddon said. "I just think the mix we have now, for me, is as good as it possibly could be. I've been with good staffs in Anaheim, and we always had a good bullpen.

"This group, in regards to the personalities and the way they interact, is very similar."

The teaching goes both ways. Miller said by bridging the generation gap (James "Houser's mom is 41 and I'm getting there"), he can show his kids he's a "cool guy," recognizing pop songs on the radio or popping off a phrase.

"My kids ask, 'How did you know that?'  " Miller said with a grin. "I told them, 'It's a clubhouse thing.'  "

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com.

Rays veteran relievers instruct, encourage 03/20/08 [Last modified: Friday, March 21, 2008 3:56pm]

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