"We looked over at Dan," Miller recalled, "and said, 'Looks like you're going to go three innings tonight, buddy.' We were just joking around. And he said, 'OK, I'll do it. I've got you guys.'"
"Sure enough, he overachieves and goes 3 1/3," Miller said. "He's a hero for me."
The circumstances that set up Wheeler's longest outing since 2004 were more than just extra innings. It was a game that had so many back-and-forth rallies early that the fifth inning felt like the seventh.
Grant Balfour, who has been a late-inning force for the Rays to get to this point, entered with one out in the fifth. So did lefty specialist J.P. Howell three batters later, after Jason Bay's home run pulled the Red Sox ahead again.
Over in the other bullpen, the feeling had to be at least a little familiar. Boston's lefty specialist, Javier Lopez, replaced Josh Beckett in the bottom of the inning. Manny Delcarmen followed him after one pitch and one hit.
It ended up taking six different pitchers between the two teams to get the six outs to get through the fifth. Two of those pitchers were unable to retire a batter.
"We looked at each other, and it was like 2 1/2 hours already, and we were in the fifth inning, and we're exhausted, mentally fatigued," Miller said. "Every inning, runs were scored. There were nailbiters, trying to pitch out of jams. Deep counts. Fans were going crazy. I think the half of them lost their voice by the sixth."
By the 10th, Wheeler was in his third inning of work, and Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon was working his second. Most of the Rays' relievers were back in the clubhouse, already used, trying whatever superstitions they could to get the Rays a run.
In the end, the game tilted on two pitchers on opposite ends of their careers. David Price's two outs in the 11th set up last year's top overall Draft pick for his first victory of any kind in the Majors. Mike Timlin, the 42-year-old postseason stalwart who was just added to the postseason roster a couple days ago, was on the losing end of B.J. Upton's sacrifice fly in the bottom of the inning.
"Both teams went about it a little differently, got to the same place in the end," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said after the 9-8 Rays victory. "We're on the road in extra innings, and there's no margin for error."
Wheeler, who pitched the last postseason game to last longer than this five-hour, 27-minute affair, got little more than kudos and a little bit of redemption. He'll take that.
Wheeler hadn't pitched more than two innings in a game since 2006. His last outing more than three innings came as a long reliever at Coors Field in '04. He also pitched three innings out of 18 in a five-hour, 50-minute battle between the Astros and Braves.
That game, Wheeler said, had much the same feel, though it was a clinching game to send Houston into the National League Championship Series. Saturday's effort didn't clinch anything for Rays, but by evening the series going into Boston, it might well have kept their World Series hopes realistically alive.
It took two more relievers from the three-pitcher fifth until Wheeler's entrance in the eighth. Howell and Bradford each went 1 1/3 innings before Dustin Pedroia's leadoff single in the eighth put the Rays bullpen in motion again to try to protect a one-run lead.
Miller entered to face David Ortiz and ended up walking him, putting runners at first and second with no one out. Enter Wheeler to try to protect an 8-7 lead.
He got the double play he needed from Kevin Youkilis, making it a two-out situation for Jason Bay with Pedroia on third. A sailing fastball to the backstop, however, sent Pedroia home to tie the game without an RBI hit.
"I just kind of got underneath it," Wheeler said. "I think I tried to do too much with it. It just happened to be at the worst possible time for me. Just kind of got away, had a little drop. I wish I had that one back."
He more than redeemed himself. After finishing off Jed Lowrie to end the eighth, he recovered from a Coco Crisp double to keep the ninth scoreless before retiring the middle of Boston's lineup in order in the 10th.
"I went out and asked him if he was done after three," Miller said. "He said, 'Nope.' I said, 'All right. You're my hero.'"
The Red Sox were in slightly better shape, thanks to two perfect innings from Hideki Okajima, but not by much. Though Justin Masterson got the first two outs of the ninth, Carlos Pena was 3-for-5 off of him in the regular season with two doubles and homer. When Pena came up with the potential winning run on first, Francona turned to Papelbon.
By the end, the only pitchers left in the bullpen were Paul Byrd for Boston and Edwin Jackson for Tampa Bay, two guys who were starters in the regular season. The rest of the relievers were in the dugout or the clubhouse, some of them trying whatever superstitions they could find.
"Just changing seats, turn the hat around, or whatever," Balfour said. "Crazy stuff, whatever it takes to win."
Miller ended up in the dugout with his hat on backwards by game's end. When it was over, he and Bradford ended up going to Wheeler.
"They both came up to me after and said, 'I was just joking. You really didn't need to do that,'" Wheeler said. "That's the thing about this team. Any one of us would go out there and do the same thing. Whatever it takes to win."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less