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Rays reliever's playoff hopes see Wright of day

ST. PETERSBURG -- Jamey Wright thought last year was the year, the season it would finally happen for the Major League journeyman and right-handed reliever.

The Dodgers made a late-season trade in hopes of making a playoff push and won seven of their last eight games, but they fell just short when they lost the penultimate game of the season to the rival Giants.

"After that game, everyone was sitting at our lockers," Wright remembered. "Everyone was quiet. I thought, 'This is what a team feels like right here. You battle, battle, battle, and all of a sudden, it doesn't work out.' That's what a real Major League team felt like."

At 38 years old, it took Wright 17 Major League seasons to get a glimpse of that feeling, and now in his 18th, he'll finally experience a playoff game with the Rays, who are in the American League Wild Card Game on TBS on Wednesday at 8:07 p.m. ET after defeating the Rangers, 5-2, on Monday.

Wright has played for 10 different teams, including two different stints with Colorado and Kansas City, but he had never played in a postseason game.

Shortly after the Dodgers clinched the National League West this season, manager Don Mattingly fired a text to his former pitcher that read, "Your turn. Dodgers vs. Rays World Series. Let's go."

The closest Wright came to the postseason was in 2002, when the Cardinals orchestrated a trade to get him out of Milwaukee and into St. Louis for three spot starts late in the season.

But when it came time for Tony La Russa to formulate his playoff roster, Wright did not find his name on it.

"I couldn't be in the dugout or in uniform," He said. "That definitely doesn't count."

This one will. Wright has been an integral part of Tampa Bay's bullpen since April, appearing in 66 games and compiling the lowest ERA (3.09) of his lengthy career.

As the Rays' chances of making the postseason began to look dim earlier this month, Wright lit up. He has allowed just three runs since the beginning of August and has kept the run column completely clean since Sept. 7. Wright has thrown almost 2,000 innings in his career, but said he feels "as good as I've ever felt."

Beyond that, Wright is one of the few veterans Rays pitchers have to look to for advice away from the dugout. None of Tampa Bay's five starters have cracked their 30s.

"When he's coming up to us after a bad game and asking us what's going on, you can talk to him about it, because he's been in every situation: starter, reliever, great, really bad -- he's been there," starter Matt Moore said. "And he's told us that, 'Hey man, if you think this is as bad as it gets, I promise it's not.' He's made me feel a lot better in some times where I didn't think anyone would be able to."

Wright knows the severity of losses late in the season, but he has also learned how to keep things light when need be.

When the Rays were looking for their luck to turn sometime around 1 a.m. on Sept. 20 during the longest game in team history -- an 18-inning affair against the Orioles -- Wright emerged from the clubhouse in a Gene Simmons mask and authentic KISS boots.

A few days later when Ben Zobrist's defense helped Tampa Bay sweep Baltimore and effectively knock the O's out of the playoff hunt, Zobrist was trying to split his attention between a throng of media members and his 4-year-old son, Zion, who was running rampant around the clubhouse begging for his father's permission to devour a piece of gum. Wright took the younger Zobrist under his arm and back to the team dining room, jokingly saying they were headed to find him some Red Bull.

"When Jamey is around, I pay a little more attention to what's going on," Moore said. "He can still surprise you. When we're all doing the same thing, he's doing something different. He has some tricks up his sleeve. When you're that age, I don't know if it's wisdom, but it's wit. He's got a lot of presence without saying a whole lot."

Evan Longoria, the Rays' unquestioned team leader, has made the playoffs in four of his first six Major League seasons and already experienced a World Series.

Longoria knows how valuable his postseason experiences are after playing with a teammate like Wright.

"Jamey has really been more of an inspiration for me than any past events or sadness of not winning the World Series in 2008. … Being a teammate of his has me realizing that it's so special to be able to play in the postseason at all," Longoria said. "I've been wanting to do it for him. I think to be able to celebrate with a guy like that when we make it in will be a really, really cool experience, and he's a great teammate and a great guy, and that just fuels the fire."

Wright has accomplished much and influenced many lives throughout his near-two-decade Major League tour of duty, but there is one more box that remains unchecked.

"It's hard being gone from my family," he said. "It's hard for my wife. She's basically a single parent with three kids. It's tough for everybody. She understands. We've lived like this for all these years, but I wouldn't trade any of it, the teams, the people I've met, the friendships I've made. I knew I would be here at some point, and that makes it that much more sweet when it happens."

If Mattingly's premonition takes shape, Wright would consider hanging it up with his head held high.

"I need to do it," Wright said. "I want to be a part of that big celebration. I want to win a World Series, and if we did, [retiring] would be something to think about in the offseason."

Sam Strong is an associate reporter for

Tampa Bay Rays, Jamey Wright