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Rays in similar situation as '05 Astros

Rays in similar situation as '05 Astros

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HOUSTON -- Dan Wheeler was on the wrong end of the biggest comeback in playoff history in 79 years Thursday night, but this wasn't his first experience with gut-wrenching losses that, at the very least, postponed a playoff clincher.

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Although the Rays' crumble against the Red Sox in this Game 5 played out much slower than the Cardinals' comeback over the Astros in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series in 2005, the parallels are jarring. The Rays were mere outs away from clinching the first pennant in franchise history, same as the Astros, and they lost in devastating fashion, as did the Astros.

And both teams were forced to board a plane, gather themselves within the next 24 hours and put the sour hour behind them. The Astros succeeded. Will the Rays?

"It's about regrouping, and it can definitely be done," said Wheeler, a member of the Astros bullpen in '05 and now a key Rays reliever. "I think that's the strength of this team. We have been able to put the past behind us and look forward to the present and the future and I think that's what we will be able to do [Saturday]."

Wheeler was in the midst of the melee at Fenway Park Thursday night, one of a handful of relievers who let a commanding 7-0 lead whither away in the last three innings of a game the Red Sox eventually won, 8-7. Wheeler, lauded for his heroic effort in Game 2, didn't fare so well this time. He allowed three runs, including a Coco Crisp RBI single during a 10-pitch at-bat that tied the game, 7-7.

Wheeler didn't have quite the same front-row seat for the Astros' loss in Game 5 in '05, but it likely hurt just as much. Back then, Lance Berkman's three-run homer in the eighth put the Astros ahead by two and sent the crowd into a deafening frenzy. Moments later, the fans were silent. Stunned. Shocked.

Brad Lidge recorded two quick outs before David Eckstein slipped a seeing-eye single past Morgan Ensberg and Adam Everett on the left side of the infield. Then Lidge walked Jim Edmonds. Minutes later, Pujols bounced a hanging slider off the facade in left field. The game, ultimately, was over.

"You can't say anything until it's over, and I've lived it," Wheeler said. "I think we had two strikes on Eckstein with Brad Lidge on the mound. And [Eckstein] saw a great pitch, got a hit, the next thing you know, walk, home run. [Guys were going], 'Oh, What happened?' So that's the thing that you have to keep your focus and attention every single pitch, every single out."

Instead of dancing in the streets, the Astros were forced to strip the protective plastic off their lockers and pack up for St. Louis to play a Game 6 that earlier, for 10 glorious minutes, had seemed so unnecessary. Their 3-1 NLCS lead withered to a dangerous margin, and the Cardinals seemingly had all the momentum.

Optimists would assume the traveling party was light, loose and feeling good as it flew to Busch Stadium for Game 6. Eventually, that did evolve. But not right away.

"There was a somber attitude," remembered former manager Phil Garner. "It was somber, quiet, guys were sleeping. Normally, there's a buzz on the plane. There's always some racket going on, especially when you're in the playoffs. But it was real quiet."

Then Brad Ausmus got a hold of the intercom, and soon, the bitter taste from Game 5 was finally history.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Ausmus said, by Garner's account, "If you look to your left, you'll see the ball that Pujols hit off Lidge. It's still circulating the earth."

"That's what broke the ice," Garner said. "Everybody went crazy. Then, the buzz started."

Had the buzz not re-emerged by gametime, it wouldn't have mattered to Oswalt. The homegrown ace righty was locked in, giddy from owner Drayton McLane's promise of a state-of-the-art tractor with a win. Oswalt didn't just deliver; he dominated, allowing three hits over seven innings.

"To me, I felt like I had the ball in my court," Oswalt said. "We had two more games to play. We had the pressure on them. I knew after second inning, I had good stuff, and I could carry the ballclub.

"I didn't sense panic. We still had Roger [Clemens] ready for Game 7. But I felt like I could beat them."

After Wheeler nailed down the win with a scoreless ninth, the Astros were on their way to the World Series.

Fast forward three years. The Rays, 35 years younger than the Astros franchise, are also looking for their first pennant in club history. To the general public, Thursday's meltdown may have spelled doom and gloom for one of the best stories of the 2008 season. For the Rays, however, Thursday's loss means one thing only -- it's simply time to play Game 6.

Just ask Wheeler. He's been through this before.

"We still felt like, in Houston, we were in the driver's seat," he said. "We were up three games to two and the same thing here. So we've just got to go out there and play the next game as hard as we can and put everything behind us and make sure that we focus on what the present brings."

And perhaps "Big Game James" Shields, with his eight wins in his last 12 starts at Tropicana Field, will repeat a little Oswalt history when he starts Game 6. Can he do it? Absolutely, said Wheeler.

"James pitched great the first game [of the series] and I totally anticipate the same thing," Wheeler said. "He's the guy we want out there in this situation. I think they say momentum is the next game's starter and I like our momentum with James going out there."

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. Associate reporter Brittany Ghiroli contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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