Martin Fennelly Columns
It could be worse, and it has, for Rays
ST. PETERSBURG - Look at it this way: They were nine games back. Now they're only one game back. "This is nothing," Rays reliever J.P. Howell said, an authority on that subject Monday. "This is nothing. You've just got to get on a two-game winning streak. It's one at a time, one pitch at a time." Still, after the second pitch Howell threw to his only batter in the crucial moment of Game 3 of the American League division series — Josh Hamilton and his two-run single with bases loaded in the seventh inning — Howell, whose side job is being one of the nicest Rays in history, threw his glove in disgust as he walked from the game.That's where things are at right now. It came down to one pitch more than a few times at the Trop, and a decision or two — Joe Maddon going to the shaky Howell, B.J. Upton caught stealing by an eighth-inning pitch out — and suddenly the Rays were 4-3 losers and their season, miracle or no, is one loss from being no more as it hits Game 4. "We're fine. Nobody is going to panic in this clubhouse," Rays Game 3 starter David Price said. "We were down nine games in September. We were down 7-0 in the game I pitched against the Yankees. We're fine." It's one at a time, one pitch at a time, but the pitch Price threw to Rangers catcher Mike Napoli, it was fast, but fat and there went Price's shutout in the seventh on a two-run home run, there went the 1-0 Rays lead, and soon it was Rangers 4-1 after Brandon Gomes' two straight walks and Howell's futile battle with Hamilton. The Rays had their chances. Rookie Desmond Jennings' two solo home runs should have inspired, but when it mattered, one at a time, one pitch at a time, the Rays weren't there. They had one hit in the first six innings off Texas starter and winner Colby Lewis. They could have padded that 1-0 lead in the fourth after Jennings' first homer, but Upton was stranded at second after strikeouts by Evan Longoria, Matt Joyce and Johnny Damon. The Rays had bases loaded with one out in the seventh but came away with just a run, as pinch-hitters Sean Rodriguez and Sam Fuld couldn't hit it out of the infield. After Jennings' second homer began the eighth, the Rays had first and second, one out, but Damon went down badly, a three-pitch strikeout. After runners moved to second and third on a wild pitch, Ben Zobrist went quietly against Rangers closer Neftali Feliz, strike three as Zobrist attempted a check swing. Kelly Shoppach, firmly back on earth, grounded into a double play to end the game. It didn't matter that Price seemed to be exorcising some postseason and September demons through six innings, pitching more than well enough to win — he simply can't give up that homer, it's the one thing he can't do in that seventh. One of the saviors from the 2008 postseason is now 0-3 in three postseason starts against Texas, all of them at home. This isn't 2008. You knew it by Howell. We've seen this from him down the stretch, the miserable appearances, the losing two-run homer in Baltimore, the losing two-run double in New York. In no way do the Rays make their first miracle in 2008 without Howell in that bullpen. But that was then. A lot of us were surprised he was on this Rays' division series roster. Maddon was thinking of a moment like Monday. "Because that's one of the big reasons that J.P. was here, to pitch to that fellow," Maddon said. Maddon's faith was far from rewarded, but it didn't deserve to be. Howell had faced that fellow Hamilton twice before with the bases loaded, and one time Josh hit a grand slam. Howell was kept for one moment like this, one matchup. Hamilton fished for Howell's first low curveball without any luck, but the second curve caught the plate, and that was that. After last week's insanity, surely these Rays are the last team on the planet anyone should count out. Nine games back? Seven runs down? But moments, they do add up. "This is the postseason, this is October," Price said. "Winning is the only thing that matters right now." It matters a lot in Game 4.