Howell spins crucial effort in relief
Two scoreless innings had dizzying effect on White Sox
ST. PETERSBURG -- Anyone who believes speed reigns supreme in the Major Leagues, should take a good, long look at Rays reliever J.P. Howell. The 25-year-old may top out in the mid-80s, but that didn't stop White Sox batters from jumping out of the box like jack rabbits in Howell's two scoreless innings in Friday night's 6-2 win.
"That's what movement does to you," Rays backstop Dioner Navarro said. "He had great movement on the ball; I mean, it's hard for me to catch him, I can't imagine to hit him."
With the Rays leading the game, 3-2, Howell breezed through the pressure-packed scenario, giving his teammates a giant momentum swing.
"I love when I go out there and bring him in a game or go out there and talk to him," manager Joe Maddon said. "He gives me a little smile, and then I know everything's going to be fine."
More than fine, in fact.
Howell went on to toss a scoreless eighth, baffling Chicago's bats with a trio of strikeouts, and giving the Rays offense a chance to tack on three insurance runs in the bottom of the frame. In his first postseason, the starter-turned-reliever has allowed just one hit in three shutout innings.
"He's got a great two-seamer -- I think [it] is one of his best pitches," Navarro said. "[And] that curve and the change. He had command of all of them the whole inning. He did a great job."
For Howell, it was business as usual. The lefty has enjoyed a breakout season in his transition to the Rays' bullpen this spring, and has been a valuable weapon in the club's middle innings.
"I had a lot of practice as a starter getting in some jams and trying to get out of them," Howell said. "So I think that has a lot to do with this relief role. And channeling all my energy and nervousness into the pitch -- that's the key. I think that is the biggest battle as a relief pitcher is not looking around the atmosphere and letting those nerves get to you."
So far, so good.
Howell's 92 regular-season strikeouts finished tied with White Sox reliever Octavio Dotel for tops in the American League, while his 2.22 ERA ranked him ninth. The young lefty did not allow an earned run in 11 outings in September and had a stretch of 25 outings -- from June 13 to Aug. 16 -- in which Howell let just two earned runs across the plate.
"His velocity's gotten better, as a relief pitcher," Maddon said. "The break on his curveball has gotten better as a relief pitcher. Strike-throwing. When we give him enough rest -- we were kind of abusing him earlier in the season. He was so important to us."
The crafty lefty shattered the Rays record for most innings by a lefty reliever, and Howell's 89 1/3 innings also tied him for most in the Majors among relievers. Nearly one-third of his outings (23-of-64) have been two innings or longer, although Maddon was adamant about giving Howell more rest in the regular season's final months.
That rest had Howell's ball spinning and the Sox bats reeling Friday night. And if his first two outings are any indication, the young lefty could prove to be a critical component in the Rays' postseason run.
Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.