Rays bullpen shuts down White Sox
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- It's the top of the seventh inning in a one-run game, the second game -- and an absolutely have-to-have one for the White Sox -- in the American League Division Series between the Sox and the Rays. Alexei Ramirez, the young second baseman for the Sox, is up to bat, and he's just contorted his body so violently trying to get away from a pitch -- we're talking a Taser-induced move, or something that one of the guys in "Alien" does just before the star pops out -- that he may need a visit from the team chiropractor. Right here. Right now.
The thing about it is, the pitch from Tampa Bay lefty J.P. Howell really isn't that bad at all. A little inside, maybe. A little high. A ball, as the ump calls it. But, really, not bad.
It's just that Howell, a skinny 25-year-old one-time starter, has some nasty, irredeemably wicked Stuff. With a capital "S." A two-seam fastball that has a nice little run to it. A changeup, when he needs it (which isn't often). And a curveball that makes knees buckle and front feet bail out, a curve that sends seasoned hitters jumping away from the plate only to watch the ball fall in for a strike.
It's one of those curves that looks as if it defies the very laws of physics, a buxom beauty that's a sheer joy to watch. Which is what a lot of White Sox hitters were doing with it Friday night in Game 2 of the ALDS.
"He's hard for me to catch," says the Rays' Dioner Navarro. "I can't imagine what it is to try to hit him."
Howell and the rest of the Tampa Bay bullpen did what they do -- did what they've been doing all season long -- in Game 2, throwing a bunch of shut-down innings to aid in another win, this one, 6-2 (Recap | Box Score). With it, the Rays go up in the best-of-five series 2-0, with Game 3 scheduled in Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field on Sunday afternoon.
The Tampa Bay bullpen threw 3 2/3 shutout innings against the punchless White Sox on Friday, every one of them important. None of them were bigger, though, than the two put in by Howell, who has gone from the horrors of pitching for the Royals -- and the ignominy of getting traded by them -- to the horrors of starting in Tampa Bay, only to emerge this year as the go-to lefty in manager Joe Maddon's pen.
Howell was studly for most of this season, with a 2.22 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 89 1/3 innings. In the postseason so far -- three innings, a hit and no runs -- he's been even better. "He's one of the best relievers in the game right now," says his bullpen buddy, Grant Balfour, who chipped in with 2/3 of an inning Friday night. "When he has that two-seamer working across the plate, he's a tough guy to hit. And then the curve. I've seen him lock some guys up with that."
The Rays were gripping a 3-2 lead in Game 2 when Maddon pulled Balfour with two men on and nobody out in the seventh. Howell came in and immediately went after designated hitter Jim Thome -- curve, curve, fastball, fastball -- and got him to pop out to center.
He threw two wicked curves to Ramirez -- he buckled on the first and bailed on the second -- and both were called strikes. And when he threw the first fastball, a little high and in, Ramirez jerked around as if the ball had missed his medulla oblongata by centimeters. "I think," Howell said a little sheepishly afterward, "he was trying to work the umpire a little there."
Two pitches later, Ramirez lined a curveball softly to short.
And that's how it went for Howell. A.J. Pierzynski grounded a curve meekly to first to end the inning. And then, in the eighth, Howell struck out Juan Uribe, Brian Anderson and Nick Swisher, all of them looking, the last two at sinfully nasty curves.
Swisher ended the inning complaining to C.B. Bucknor, the home plate umpire. Bucknor wasn't listening.
"They were begging for whatever calls they could get," Balfour said, "because they knew they weren't going to get him."
The Tampa Bay bullpen has been a strength all season long, a key part of the team's run to 97 wins and the AL East pennant. In 2007, the bullpen registered a 6.16 ERA, the highest mark in the last 50 years. Opponents hit .302 off the Rays' relievers. This year, the bullpen had a 3.55 ERA, third in the AL. And rivals hit just .220 off them, the best mark in the majors.
Nobody threw more innings out of the bullpen than the man his mates have dubbed, "Pizzle." Whatever that means. "I don't know," Howell said. "They wanted something funky to go with J.P., and Pizzle is kind of funky, and I'm a little funky sometimes ..."
Right-hander Dan Wheeler spent time early this season talking Wheeler through the ins-and-outs of working in relief. Somewhere along the line, Howell bought into it without question. "I told him, a big part of the bullpen is anticipation. Being always ready to go," Wheeler said. "Now, he just throws every pitch with such conviction."
Says Howell: "Our starters are so good, it's almost an honor to get beat out by them. Right now, I'm loving this role. This is where I want to be."
With the win, the Rays are sitting pretty, too, on the verge of the AL Championship Series in the franchise's first foray into the postseason. Friday, they got a fifth-inning home run from second baseman Akinori Iwamura to overcome an early 2-0 hole, then piled on with three runs in the eighth, mostly by using their speed (a leadoff triple, a stolen base), some timely hitting and a little luck (Navarro's two-out bloop double spun off the artificial turf at Tropicana Field and scored Rocco Baldelli from first base).
Now, the Rays get a day of rest before trying the Sox in Chicago. Howell and the rest of his mates will be raring to close the series out on Sunday. "They're a veteran team. They can come back and win three easy, if you let them," Howell said. "We gotta go like we have been."
Unless the other guys start throwing some curves of their own, going like they have been should be plenty enough for the Rays to move on.