01/21/09 10:00 AM EST
Wheeler to dispense Classic advice
Rays teammates can turn to veteran for help handling event
By Bill Chastain / MLB.com
With the Rays possibly having eight players participating in the Classic with six different teams, Wheeler can expect plenty of visits from his teammates asking for advice on how to approach the event.
Wheeler, 31, pitched for Team USA in 2006 and began by stating the obvious that "it's an honor to put your country's name on your chest." And while participating players will find Spring Training to be a different animal this year, Wheeler said the change of routine can be dealt with if handled properly.
Spring Training "just starts a little bit earlier," Wheeler said. "And you're not asked to do something you can't do this early, like throwing back-to-back days as a pitcher.
"The one thing that I realized playing in it, and wasn't really sure what to expect, is those games had a playoff atmosphere. So when you're normally used to playing Spring Training games that don't mean anything, these games actually mean something; you're trying to win a championship."
Wheeler said the reality of the impact of the games hit him once he took the mound for his first appearance of the Classic against Mexico, and he'd only thrown 1 2/3 innings.
"I realized I didn't have enough innings under my belt to be making the pitches you need to make in a competitive game like that," Wheeler said. "Anybody on the team is a professional, and I think they're going to realize what they need to do to be ready, and I think that's going to help them. But it's definitely not easy.
"Physically, you're telling yourself you don't need to be ready for another month, but in reality, you have to be ready whenever that first game is ... and it's not easy, it really isn't. But I think they've given the guys enough amount of time to get ready. And I think that's the key, they really needed to do that."
The following Rays players are on the provisional rosters for their respective countries: Grant Balfour, Australia; Matt Garza, Mexico; Akinori Iwamura, Japan; Dioner Navarro, Venezuela; Carlos Pena, Dominican Republic; and J.P. Howell, Scott Kazmir and Evan Longoria, USA.
The first round opens March 5 in Tokyo, with defending champion Japan facing China. Mexico City, Toronto and San Juan, Puerto Rico, host the other three first-round brackets.
It's a double-elimination format this time in the first two rounds. The winners from Toronto will meet the winners from Puerto Rico in the second round at Miami's Dolphin Stadium, while the winners from Tokyo will meet the winners from Mexico City in San Diego's PETCO Park.
The semifinals and finals are on March 21 and 23 at Dodger Stadium.
Participation in the World Baseball Classic can potentially take players away from the Rays' camp for more than three weeks. They would report to Port Charlotte, Fla., with the team on Feb. 14 before heading to their respective Classic teams at the beginning of March.
Should any of the Tampa Bay players be on teams that advance to the finals on March 23 at Dodger Stadium, they could rejoin the Rays on March 24, in time for the final 10 exhibition games of Spring Training. The Rays' final Grapefruit League game in Port Charlotte will be April 1 against the Twins, but they will close out Spring Training on April 4 against the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.
Kazmir, Howell, Balfour and Garza all could be pitching in the Classic, though it's likely Garza could be pulled since he had offseason surgery on his right foot. When asked what he would tell any of the four if asked for advice, Wheeler said he'd make sure they were aware of their situations.
"They're not going to be asked to throw a lot of pitches or innings -- that's good," Wheeler said. "You need to make sure you stay on top of your workouts and all the little things you do in the spring to get ready for the regular season.
"We had trainers and everything there. But you were more so on your own to make sure that you got your work done. We're all professionals, and we all play in the big leagues. So they're going to be able to do that. They're going to have to make sure they hold themselves accountable to get their work done. When they are asked to pitch, hopefully they realize this is an intense atmosphere.
"A good thing about it is they understand that intense atmosphere after competing in an intense atmosphere during the postseason last year."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.