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Rays' Wheeler earns respect as stand-in closer

ST. PETERSBURG — When RHP Troy Percival was placed on the disabled list in mid August, manager Joe Maddon said he planned to use a closer-by-committee approach, based on particular matchups.

But throughout a recent stretch of close games, veteran RHP Dan Wheeler has accepted a lion's share of the save situations — and come through in a big way. Wheeler is 6-for-7 in save opportunities since Percival went on the DL on Aug. 15 and has given up just one run.

Wheeler, whose 10 saves are one shy of tying a career high, said he has just been more aggressive and throwing quality strikes, trying to "hold down the fort" until Percival's return. That could be as soon as today as Percival, 39, is eligible to come off the DL.

Maddon said of Wheeler's recent usage in the ninth, "it's just worked out that way," but pointed out that the setup man has been put in those situations throughout his career (25 saves entering this season). Wheeler said the big difference with him since last season (1-9 with a 5.30 ERA) — when "I missed over the middle of the plate more than I ever did" — is execution.

"I've spoken about Dan's experience, which I think a lot of times is underestimated," Maddon said. "Everybody always falls in love with the speed gun and radar gun, and they just assume that velocity is going to come through in this moment. But regardless of velocity, you still need to get people out, and Dan has shown that."

Bartlett off: Maddon said he has wanted to give SS Jason Bartlett a day off and chose Friday because the Orioles started RHP Jeremy Guthrie.

The Orioles throw left-handers on back-to-back days today and Sunday, and Maddon expects Bartlett to play in both of those (Bartlett is hitting .238 vs. right-handers and .343 vs. lefties).

Maddon said Bartlett is physically fine, but he wanted to pay attention to his right knee, which he sprained earlier in the season. Utilityman Ben Zobrist started at shortstop, going 1-for-5, including his first career grand slam.

Medical report: C Dioner Navarro sat out his third straight game due to sore hamstrings but said he felt much better, and Maddon said he could be back in the lineup today. Navarro ran the bases Friday and took batting practice.

Maddon said 3B Evan Longoria (broken right wrist) took swings with a broomstick and made about 70 throws and "threw very well and felt good about it." The Rays had hoped to have him back by next week's Yankees series (Sept. 2-4), but Longoria didn't want to give a timetable, saying it "could be next week, could be two weeks."

Maddon likes mea culpa: Maddon said he had a newfound respect for umpire Doug Eddings and his crew after MLB umpire director Mike Port admitted in Friday's St. Petersburg Times that Eddings' controversial ruling of obstruction on Willy Aybar in Sunday's loss to the White Sox was a "missed call."

"When a guy comes up and Doug admits he made a mistake in that situation, to me the respect I have for him increases 100 times," Maddon said. "They're not going to be perfect; they're going to make mistakes. We accept that. But when they come out and said that they do, my God, I think he's one of the best umpires in the game at that particular juncture."

NICE TOUCH: The Rays plan to send a memento from Friday's win (such as a lineup card) to principal owner Stuart Sternberg, who made 50 wins at home a goal last year.

MISCELLANY: The attendance (21,439) was the Rays' largest in their past seven home games. … LHP Kurt Birkins was released from Triple-A Durham, which opens a spot on the 40-man roster. That will come into play for September callups. … The Rays' 14 runs were the most at home since Sept. 5, 2007, a 17-2 win over the Orioles.

Rays' Wheeler earns respect as stand-in closer 08/29/08 [Last modified: Sunday, August 31, 2008 6:39pm]
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