When all the wheeling and dealing was done at the July trade deadline, and the Rays had picked up reliever Chad Qualls, there wasn't much of a ripple in the Tampa Bay area.
Fans just saw a veteran right-hander who boasted an 8.29 ERA for the Diamondbacks, one of the worst teams in baseball. But Yankees general manager Brian Cashman believed Qualls was a "prime bounce-back candidate," and so did the Rays.
Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey remembered how Qualls was such an integral part of his Astros bullpens during their playoff runs in 2004 and 2005. But Qualls had come back too soon from a freak left knee injury he suffered last August, and because his mechanics were out of whack, his sinker was flat.
Qualls told Hickey in late June, when the Diamondbacks and Rays met at Tropicana Field, he was starting to turn the corner and "getting back to the old me."
"Hopefully," Hickey said, "we can reap the benefits over the next 50 games or so."
Qualls, who turns 32 Tuesday, has looked sharp so far with the Rays, with five scoreless appearances in six outings. His only bump came Saturday against the Jays when he gave up a three-run homer in a 17-11 loss.
But in two recent Rays victories, Qualls has come up big, inducing a double play by Yankees designated hitter Lance Berkman on Aug. 1 and pitching 1 2/3 scoreless innings Monday against the Tigers.
Qualls said the "fresh start" and being part of a pennant race again are invigorating. Having a locker next to former Astros teammate Dan Wheeler has helped make the transition easier. And the Rays believe Qualls can be an important bridge in the bullpen to Joaquin Benoit and closer Rafael Soriano, especially in the absence of injured Grant Balfour.
"This guy has really good stuff," manager Joe Maddon said. "Velocity, movement, breaking ball. I believe as Chad develops more confidence … you're going to see this guy pitch really, really well because his stuff is that good."
Qualls, a 6-foot-5, 220-pound Harbor City, Calif., native, said after what he has gone through this past year, he takes nothing for granted. On Aug. 30, 2009, Qualls was one out away from picking up his career-high 25th save — coincidentally, against the Astros — when he dislocated his left kneecap trying to avoid a liner by Jason Michaels. Qualls said with his left foot stuck in the dirt, he tore both meniscus, his quadriceps muscle and the ligament that goes from his kneecap to his femur.
"It was the first real serious injury I ever went through," he said. "It's mentally tough, and physically tough."
Qualls said he went into surgery naive, thinking he could rehab for a couple of months and be back to 100 percent. But he found himself mired in some bad habits mechanically, including falling off to the side of the mound. As he struggled to correct everything, he gave up 35 earned runs in 38 innings with Arizona.
"I know what I've done in my career, and expect to go out there and be perfect every time," he said. "And for it to keep happening over and over again for a few months, it was really frustrating."
Qualls has found a comfort level on and off the mound with the Rays, who say he will fit in well. Hickey said Qualls blends competitiveness with California-cool, "more of a goofy kind of guy, a J.P. Howell, except not quite as ragged as J.P. was."
And Qualls hopes that reuniting with Hickey and Wheeler can turn into another memorable World Series run.
"To come over here and have a fresh start and play for something over here, it makes everything a little bit easier, a little better," he said. "I'm happy with the way things have been going over here."