"It's an unbelievable feeling to actually go out there and play for something and pitch for something," said Qualls, who appeared in 15 postseason games for the Astros in 2004 and '05, including the 2005 World Series. "I can't wait to be a part of it."
A ground-ball pitcher with a strong sinker, Qualls will benefit greatly from the defensive talent in the Rays' infield. Manager Joe Maddon isn't shy about saying that his team plays the best defense in the league, and having that kind of skill behind him should allow Qualls to do what he does best.
"Hopefully, with our defense out there, we'll put him in the right spots," Maddon said. "Hopefully, if he throws the ball on the ground, we'll catch it. We're eager to have him. I'm looking forward to it. Always like ground-ball guys."
Qualls has compiled a 30-26 record with a 3.75 ERA and 51 saves in seven Major League seasons with the Astros (2004-07) and D-backs (2008-10), but he struggled early this season, recording 12 saves in 43 games while posting a 1-4 record and an 8.29 ERA.
The poor statistics don't tell the whole story, however. Qualls has been recovering from the left knee surgery he underwent late last season. During offseason rehab, he said, he picked up some bad habits and began favoring the knee.
Those bad habits continued and became difficult to fix quickly, but Qualls took plenty of steps in the right direction during the past few months with Arizona, and he hopes those changes will begin to pay off with his new team.
"I've always had really good second halves in my career. I've been a strong finisher. I know that I can go out there and do these things," he said. "It was just really frustrating for me earlier in the season to not be successful like I've been accustomed to. For it to keep happening and keep happening, I wanted to figure out what the problem was. Fortunately, we did find it and fix it. It was just up to me to try to get back to my old self."
Wheeler, Qualls' teammate in Houston from 2004-07, said Qualls is a "big-game pitcher" who only gets better as the year goes on, and he expects that to be true this season as the Rays head into the stretch run of a tight battle in the American League East. Qualls texted Wheeler when he learned about the trade to say, "We're going to be teammates again."
"He lives for those moments," Wheeler said. "He's definitely a way better pitcher than those numbers are showing."
As someone familiar with both Qualls and Tampa Bay's defense, Wheeler also said the infield will be a perfect complement to Qualls' abilities -- something that should take the pressure off Qualls to strike out every batter he faces.
"I think that's the most important thing," Wheeler said. "If he realizes he doesn't have to strike everybody out, he can use the infield we have here, which in my opinion is the best in the league, and he'll be that much better."
Along with Wheeler, Qualls will join another familiar face on the staff in pitching coach Jim Hickey, with whom he worked in Houston. Qualls said that having a history with Hickey will make it easier to further correct the mechanical issues that caused his early struggles, and he looked forward to his first meeting with Hickey.
Speaking to the media before Saturday's game, Qualls said that he had been too busy running around trying to get everything in order and meeting his new teammates to truly settle in yet. He found out about the trade at 2 a.m. ET on Saturday, didn't get to sleep until 4 a.m. and was on a flight to Florida seven hours later.
"I haven't had too much sleep, but it's part of the game, obviously, when you're on a losing team and everything has to go down the way it does," Qualls said. "I'm happy where I'm at."
Maddon and the Rays are certainly happy to add Qualls, and Jerry Dipoto, Arizona's interim general manager, offered nothing but praise for the reliever as he begins a new phase of his career.
"He had a rough year. He was very thankful for his time here and he was very apologetic for the kind of year that he had," Dipoto said. "I thought he handled things very professionally. I think he was in a situation where a change of scenery will do him a lot of good."