Howell getting ready for stretch run
Tampa Bay (82-51) vs. Baltimore (63-71), Saturday, 3:55 p.m. ET
ST. PETERSBURG -- Although Rays manager Joe Maddon has been scaling back the use of lefty J.P. Howell, the reliever will be in full focus on Saturday afternoon. And for Howell, the scenario will be far more frightening than anything the 25-year-old encounters out of the bullpen.
With Saturday's Rays-Orioles contest selected to be the FOX Game of the Week, one player from each club will introduce the team's starting lineup on national television. For Tampa Bay, those duties have been bestowed on Howell.
"A little sketchy on it, a little nervous," Howell said on Friday. "It's like FOX Eve."
After catcher Shawn Riggans did a commendable job going through the Rays' starters in Chicago last Saturday, Howell recalls thinking, "Man, I could never do that."
But a little coaching from Riggans -- who nailed his on-air time in just the second take -- should help ease the nerves.
And Howell's recent absence from Rays games is no cause for alarm either.
After making his first Opening Day roster this spring, Howell -- a starter-turned-reliever -- has worked 71 2/3 relief innings, third most in the American League.
"Being that this is uncharted territory for him, I think we really need to be careful with [innings]," Maddon said. "Because we do want him strong down the stretch. So more than anything, I thought it would be prudent to back off him a little bit."
Howell said the frequent pitching coupled with his weight lifting made it seem like he was doing double duty, and the young pitcher started to get back spasms that traveled down into his legs. He approached Maddon for the first time all season prior to Aug. 17's Angels series opener.
"I told him it would be nice to get two, three days [off]," Howell said.
Since then, Howell has appeared in only three games, tossing a combined three innings. Conversely, 19 of Howell's first 39 appearances this season were for more two or more innings.
The young southpaw has already eclipsed the Rays record for relief innings by a left-hander, as the previous mark of 62 2/3 innings was set by Doug Creek in 2001. Earlier this season, Howell was also on track to smash Greg Swindell's MLB record for most relief innings thrown by a left-hander -- 90 1/3 in 1998.
"I did not want him to be that guy," Maddon said of breaking Swindell's record.
And although Howell's background as a starter helps, pitching out of the bullpen is a completely different animal. Howell compares the shift to jogging for a long time as opposed to running frequent short bursting sprints.
"The up and down [in the bullpen] is different," Maddon said. "And you have to consider the times he gets up and does not get in the game, which does not count as an appearance but nevertheless he threw. So, all those things I'm just trying to think about and keep him fresh."
Both Howell and Maddon say the lefty will be available this weekend, although the Rays would like to conserve him if possible. With a 2.64 ERA and weapons against hitters on both sides of the plate, Howell is a valuable weapon for the much-improved Rays 'pen.
"I think it's smart," Howell said of Maddon's precautionary thinking. "I think he's being smart for me."Pitching matchup
TB: RHP Andy Sonnanstine (13-6, 4.42 ERA)
Sonnanstine picked up a no-decision on Sunday when he held the White Sox to four runs on nine hits. Sonnanstine is 2-2 with a 5.70 ERA in four career starts against the Orioles. He is 8-8 with a 5.34 ERA in 22 career starts at Tropicana Field. BAL: LHP Chris Waters (2-1, 2.71 ERA)
Waters pitched well for the Orioles on Monday against the White Sox, but it wasn't enough to overcome a few mistakes on the mound in a 4-3 loss. Waters balked in the tying run and gave up a homer to Jim Thome after striking the slugger out in his first two at-bats. Following his sparkling debut, the rookie left-hander has come back down to earth. Waters has never faced Tampa Bay. Tidbits
Left-hander Kurt Birkins was released from the Rays' 40-man roster on Friday. Birkins was previously with Triple-A Durham, and the move leaves the club with a 39 players on the roster. ... James Shields was on hand visiting with customers and signing autographs at a Sweetbay supermarket on Friday morning. The promotion was part of an effort to help kick off a new partnership between the Rays and the Tampa-based chain. Afterward, Shields was all smiles and said he had fun helping out and learning how to bag groceries for the first time. ... Evan Longoria (fractured right wrist) threw about 70 tosses on Friday and, according to Maddon, "felt good about it". The Rays rookie was also scheduled to swing with a broomstick under the careful eye of head athletic trainer Ron Porterfield and to do some resistance running. "He's feeling better," Maddon said. "He sounded better. He's understanding that soreness is a good thing." The Rays are hopeful the All-Star third baseman will rejoin the club for Tuesday's series opener vs. the Yankees. ... Saturday's game will mark the fourth time in club history the Rays will be featured as the FOX Game of the Week and the second straight Saturday. The club also made its first TBS appearance last Sunday in Chicago and Wednesday's Rays-Yankees game at Tropicana Field will be the Rays' 6th ESPN appearance this season. ... B.J. Upton's steal in the first inning of Friday night's game was his 39th swipe this season, improving his career-high mark and putting the 24-year-old just one steal shy of becoming just the second Ray to have a 40-steal season. Carl Crawford is the lone Rays player to reach the 40-steal marker. The speedy outfielder has done it five times. Upton is also just two steals shy of tying Boston's Jacoby Ellsbury for the AL lead, as Ellsbury entered Saturday with 41 swipes. Tickets
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Sunday: Rays (James Shields, 11-8, 3.75) vs. Orioles (Brian Burres 7-8, 5.79), 1:40 p.m. ET
Tuesday: Rays (Matt Garza, 11-7, 3.53) vs. Yankees (Mike Mussina, 16-7, 3.41), 7:10 p.m. ET
Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.