ST. PETERSBURG — The focus was on the left-hander who started the game, and David Price did well, working into the seventh inning and showing enough progress for the Rays to believe he'll soon be the consistent winner they envision.
But the focal point Sunday was the left-hander who finished the game. J.P. Howell closed out his busy weekend by closing out a 5-2 series-sweeping win over the Marlins, then insisted he not be called the closer.
Howell was the winner as the Rays rallied late Friday and again Saturday, and he was the savior Sunday, striking out the last two Marlins with the bases loaded, then pounding his glove in an unusual show of emotion.
"It was intense," Howell said. "We wanted to finish it off. It's tough to sweep any team, especially them. We can move on to Toronto now, and we're feeling pretty good."
With good reason. The Rays are riding a five-game winning streak that has put them a season-high seven games over .500, at 42-35, and into third place alone in the American League East. They finished interleague play 13-5, and their 34-21 record since April 30 is the AL's best.
"We're just playing better baseball," manager Joe Maddon said. "The kind of baseball we expect of ourselves."
The offense Sunday came in small bursts, from a Carlos Peña bunt to beat Florida's shift that started a two-run rally to a B.J. Upton blast that made the Rays the fifth team to have 100 homers and 100 steals before the All-Star break.
But the story, before a vibrant crowd of 29,459, was on the mound.
Price, who stayed in the rotation when Andy Sonnanstine was demoted to Triple A on Friday, rebounded from a rough Tuesday outing, allowing one run on two hits over 61/3 innings. He didn't start well, with a 28-pitch first, and five walks were still too many. He admitted to "a lack of concentration."
But once Maddon told catcher Dioner Navarro to use more sliders and changeups, preventing the Marlins from sitting on his fastball, Price found a groove that showed the potential to dominate that the 23-year-old rookie has.
"I'm getting there," he said. "I'm close."
"Really close," Maddon said.
Howell, 26, has arrived, as odd as it may seem seeing the soft-tossing free-spirit with the body of a high school senior on the mound for the final outs. "Power," Maddon said, "comes in different forms."
Howell drops "dude," "bro," "man" and "son" on everyone, including Maddon. And when he says he can handle the pressure of the ninth because he treats it like any other inning, his bullpen mates are only half-joking when they say it's because he doesn't know the difference.
"He knows what inning it is, I can verify that," Joe Nelson said. "Because we tell him."
Sunday, Howell was summoned unexpectedly to get the last two outs with a 5-1 lead and two on. He first made it worse, hitting a batter and then walking another to force in a run. But then he did his thing, striking out Ronny Paulino and Ross Gload to end the game. He got his fifth save, extended his streak without allowing an earned run to 17 appearances and started the celebration.
"There was a lot of electricity flowing around out there," Maddon said. "He knows we needed that game right there based on how well we played."
How did it feel to Howell?
"It's like everything leaves you at once," he said. "It's a good feeling, man. You can kind of let it go, get loose.
"It compares to the last day of school. Really, it's that good. And you get to do it a couple times a weekend. It feels really good. So it's really fun."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]mes.com.