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05/25/08 1:51 PM ET

Rays recognize value of Howell, Reyes

Middle relievers save back end of bullpen in Saturday's rout

ST. PETERSBURG -- Saturday night's win over the Orioles turned out to be a rout, but there were times when the game almost felt like it could slip away despite the Rays having a seven-run lead. Had J.P. Howell and Al Reyes not come through, things might have gotten a little more interesting.

"We were one swing of the bat away from being in a three- or four-run ballgame," Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "And suddenly, it's like we're back to all hands on deck. I mean, J.P. was tremendous in coming in and settling it down, and Al, too, settling that down."

Howell pitched two perfect innings Saturday night, with two strikeouts, knocking out the sixth and seventh innings when the Orioles did not seem content to go down quietly. Reyes came in to relieve Gary Glover with the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth inning, and he struck out Guillermo Quiroz to end the threat. Reyes then retired the O's in order in the ninth to end the game.

"We finally scored a lot of runs, and you don't want to have to go deep into the bullpen in a game like that," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "After five innings, I felt good about J.P. coming into that game, and he got six consecutive outs. We were looking for two innings from him, then hopefully one from Glove and one from Al.

"There was a problem there when [Glover's] pitches started getting up high. If there's a problem there, you're going to use [setup man Dan] Wheeler and [closer Troy] Percival in that game last night, which is not what we wanted to do. It's overlooked some times. J.P. did a great job. And so did Al. Al got us out of that jam."

Reyes served as Tampa Bay's closer in 2007, posting 26 saves. This season, he moved into a setup role with Percival coming in as closer. Reyes was reinstated from the 15-day disabled list May 14 after missing 25 games with a right shoulder impingement. In his four appearances since returning, he has pitched 4 1/3 scoreless innings without giving up a hit.

"I feel good, I feel 100 percent," Reyes said. "I just try to go out there and do my job. Last night's game, we score a lot of runs, they tried to come back. I feel good coming into the game in that situation and get the guy out."

Howell made the change from starter this season, and has thrived in his new role. He is 3-0 with a 2.56 ERA and one save in 16 appearances, and he leads the American League with 31 2/3 innings as a reliever. In his last seven appearances, he is 3-0 with an 0.71 ERA.

"He has a chance to dominate -- one time through the lineup -- because he's unusual," Maddon said. "Arm stroke, the way the ball moves, deception and now his velocity is up to 86, 87 [mph]. See, some of the bad swings he gets on the curve ball shows you he's sharper. Is this a product of being in the bullpen? I don't know for right now.

"He is the most valuable guy out there, what he's done for us this year, invaluable. He's saved a lot of innings. He's thrown at a very high level, and he's a nice little item to have down there."

Maddon said the Rays have not ruled out the possibility of Howell returning to a starting role at some point.

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.