ST. PETERSBURG — Akinori Iwamura isn't sure if Carlos Lee is the largest man he has ever had bearing down on him at second base, but the Astros DH is the first to attempt to tackle him.
Lee's apparent tug at Iwamura's legs after being forced out during a potential inning-ending double play in the eighth inning — preventing a throw and allowing the go-ahead run to score from third — drew manager Joe Maddon from the dugout but no sanction from umpire Bob Davidson. It also puzzled the second baseman, who admired the hustle but not the method.
"I've gotten spiked before. I've never gotten 'handed' in my baseball career," Iwamura said through an interpreter. "It felt like American football-style tackling."
Iwamura was unsure if he could have completed the double play on the slow-bounding ball to the left side but added, "at least I could try" without Lee's alleged interference.
"Bob had a conflicting opinion as opposed to mine," Maddon said. "He thought it was a good baseball play, which I agree with. It is a good baseball play if you get away with it."
So was Lee (6 feet 2, 240 pounds) the biggest to come at Iwamura in malice?
"Is he taller than Shelley Duncan?" he said, laughing, referring to the Yankee who cut his knee with a retaliatory spikes-high slide in spring training.
STRONG AGAIN: Reliever J.P. Howell had another routine clutch performance, stranding the bases loaded in the seventh to preserve a 2-2 tie after starter Edwin Jackson had walked in a run. He allowed an unearned run in the eighth but assumed the blame for the go-ahead score on the double play Lee broke up.
Though C Shawn Riggans had allowed Lance Berkman to reach second with one out by mishandling a third strike then throwing the ball into rightfield, Howell said Berkman never would have scored had he not allowed him to steal third base.
"(The defense) has picked me up all year, and I need to pick (Riggans) up," Howell said. "I was a little disappointed in myself, but it worked out."
The Rays, who have played 34 one- or two-run games out of their 74, improved to 9-17 when committing an error. They are 13-8 in one-run games after their first win over Houston.
COMEBACK TRAIL: DH Rocco Baldelli, who is attempting to come back from a rare condition that causes muscle fatigue in his legs, will remain with Class A Vero Beach for at least the next eight games as the team plays in Clearwater and Sarasota. He will start tonight and appear regularly as a pinch-hitter, he said, during his non-starts, preferably against left-handed pitchers.
His status will likely be re-evaluated in a week, but Maddon said he is likely to remain with Vero Beach. Baldelli is 3-for-9 in three games.
Baldelli, 26, has played just 127 games for the Rays since missing all of 2005 with knee and elbow injuries but said he feels well.
MISCELLANY: 1B Carlos Pena, eligible to come off the 15-day disabled list after fracturing his left index finger, will be X-rayed and evaluated today. Claiming he feels "head-over-heels" good, he began hitting soft tosses on Friday. … Carl Crawford's RBI triple in the fourth tied him for the American League lead with five. … Houston native Scott Kazmir will make his first career start against the Astros today. … David Price allowed three runs on five hits and two walks in 61/3 innings on Saturday in his sixth start for Vero Beach. He struck out seven and improved to 4-0 with a 1.82 ERA as the Devil Rays beat St. Lucie 5-3. Price is scheduled to pitch on Thursday at Sarasota.
Brant James can be reached at email@example.com.