ST. PETERSBURG — On the eve of the Rays' first playoff game, reliever J.P. Howell couldn't sleep.
As the left-hander lay awake Wednesday, he couldn't stop thinking.
"I was (wondering)," Howell, 25, said, " 'How is this going to turn out?' "
Howell's wondering quickly turned into "wow."
For the second straight game, he came through with a clutch performance in a playoff win. Friday night in Game 2 of the ALDS against the White Sox, Howell preserved a one-run lead in the seventh after inheriting a two-on, nobody-out situation from Grant Balfour. He retired the next three batters, then struck out the side in the eighth, all looking.
"I was just trying to go in and up, up, down, and keep their eyes moving all over the dish," Howell said. "And it worked out for me."
It was reminiscent of many outings in his breakout season, in which the first-year reliever has been tabbed by manager Joe Maddon as one of the team MVPs.
"To come in there, he really saved the game; it was massive," Balfour said. "He faced some good hitters. He just seemed to make it look easy out there."
Howell said he relishes entering in those jams, ones he quipped he put himself in often as a starter last season, when he went 1-6 with a 7.59 ERA. Howell can be high energy, but he brings some California cool in chaotic spots. Maddon laughed recalling how he loves going to the mound to talk with Howell, who gives him a "little smile, and then I know everything's going to be fine."
In Friday's seventh, Howell entered with the tying run on second but got slugger Jim Thome to fly out, Alexei Ramirez to line out and A.J. Pierzynski to ground out. In Howell's third strikeout in the eighth, he fell behind 3-and-0 before Nick Swisher watched three straight strikes.
Said Howell: "I have to go right at them."
Howell was tied for the major-league lead in relief innings in the regular season with 891/3 and tied for first among AL relievers for best percentage of inherited runners scored (11.8). After a brief midseason spurt in which he battled fatigue, Howell has been lights out: He hasn't given up an earned run in 13 appearances.
"You can't say enough about this guy," All-Star left-hander Scott Kazmir said. "Every outing, he flat-out dominates."
"It's like he's been doing this out of the pen the last five or six years," Balfour said. "He's showing he can go out there and get big outs. … He's showing he's one of the best relievers in the game."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.