ST. PETERSBURG — To J.P. Howell, there's no simple answer.
The Rays left-hander, part of one of the majors' top bullpens this season, was trying to explain how a group that gave up just four runs in its first 24 innings this postseason could allow one of the biggest comebacks in playoff history Thursday night.
With the Rays up 7-0 and seven outs from the World Series, three of their most reliable relievers — Howell, Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler — surrendered a combined eight runs in the Red Sox's walkoff win.
Howell and Wheeler said they're confident the bullpen will bounce back; that tough games happen throughout the season and, as Howell said, this was just "bad timing." But the loss did leave a bitter taste in their mouths.
"You kind of feel sick," Howell said. "You're like, 'I can't believe I was part of that.' "
The three were physically fine and so was their velocity. But it came down to execution, and on two 10-pitch at-bats, the Red Sox outlasted them, making them pay for mistakes.
Manager Joe Maddon said Balfour had "good stuff," but he was concerned the right-hander had to spend so much time in the bullpen before entering in the seventh. Balfour gave up a leadoff double to Jed Lowrie and, after getting two outs, consecutive singles to Coco Crisp and Dustin Pedroia (on a 3-and-2 pitch).
But Balfour's biggest mistake came on a low, inside pitch to struggling David Ortiz, who hit a two-out, three-run homer.
"I just didn't have that putaway pitch," Balfour said.
Wheeler started the eighth with a four-pitch walk to Jason Bay then a two-run homer to J.D. Drew.
"It's just execution. That's what it boils down to in this game," he said. "It's who executes and who doesn't, and I didn't."
Mark Kotsay then hit a two-out double to center off the glove of B.J. Upton, setting up a 10-pitch at-bat by Crisp, who fouled off fastball after fastball from Wheeler, who was trying to get the centerfielder to pop up. But once Wheeler let a fastball get in the zone, Crisp ripped it for a tying single to right.
Said Wheeler: "I wasn't able to close the door."
Howell nearly got out of the ninth unscathed. He collected two straight outs, including a strikeout of Ortiz. But in a 10-pitch sequence with Kevin Youkilis, Howell threw "about four pitches that were strikeout pitches, and he fouled them off."
Youkilis grounded the ball to third, where Evan Longoria made a nice backhand before, as he said, getting "lackadaisical" with the throw that bounced past Carlos Pena at first and into the stands. Howell fell behind Drew 3-and-0 and threw two changeups, the latter up in the zone that Drew lofted over Gabe Gross' head in right.
"Sometimes, you're a little off," Howell said. "And they kept coming, and they won. They outlasted us."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com