ST. PETERSBURG — A lot has factored in to the Rays' increasingly intriguing bid to get back in the playoffs. There has been a noticeable improvement in the offense. More dazzling defensive plays. A string of quality pitching performances.
After Sunday's 3-0 win over Toronto that ran their winning streak to five, add J.P. Howell's Portuguese water dog Rosie to the list.
Howell credited his rec time with Rosie for being able to make the remarkable running, and throwing in midair, play his teammates said saved the day, and maybe the season, keeping the Blue Jays from scoring what would have been the tying run in the seventh.
"That's the play of the year," manager Joe Maddon said. "It's an impossible play to make and he did. You win the pennant because of that play right there."
Sunday, they were happy just to win the game, improving to 83-70 and remaining 3½ games behind the A's, albeit with only nine games remaining. The Rays, who also have the Angels in front of them, trail the wild card-leading Orioles by 4½ and the East-leading Yankees by 5½.
But, for today anyway, their sights seem set on the A's, who beat the Yankees on Sunday but play seven of their remaining 10 games against the AL-best Rangers, with a four-game series starting tonight in Arlington.
"There's definitely some life. You can hear our heartbeat rolling," Howell said. "Put a little pressure on them and hopefully they fold. That's what we're trying to do — we're just trying to make them boys fold.
"They've got a tough schedule ahead of them. So do we, but they've got the Rangers, and hopefully the Rangers do work for us. I love the Rangers. The Rangers are my favorite."
The Rays were in position to win Sunday's game thanks to a first-inning homer by B.J. Upton, his career-high-extending 26th overall, eighth in his past 14 games and 16th in 41 games since Aug. 11, most in the majors in that span; and a solid five-plus-inning effort from Jeremy Hellickson, who won for the first time in a month.
They ensured it with three key plays.
Jake McGee came on when Hellickson was pulled with the bases loaded in the sixth and left Kelly Johnson looking helplessly at a 97 mph fastball for strike three. "Kind of the big point in that game," Maddon said.
Evan Longoria turned the 1-0 lead into 3-0 in the eighth, doubling off the right-centerfield wall after Desmond Jennings reached on a one-out broken bat single and stole second, and Jays manager John Farrell helped the cause by walking Ben Zobrist, figuring Longoria with his bad leg was a prime double play candidate. "It was a surprise for me to see them put him on and let me hit with two people on," Longoria said. "I was excited."
And in between, there was Howell making a mad dash and flying through the air.
"Saved the game," Longoria said.
The Jays had a man on third with two outs when Colby Rasmus hit a soft broken-bat looper over the right side of the mound. Howell chased it down before the edge of the basepath, scooped it, then left his feet as he turned and threw a sidearm strike to first before landing on the dirt.
"When it was hit, I'm like, 'No, really, that's going to be one?' " Upton said. "But he looked pretty quick. He didn't look like a pitcher."
Howell was getting plenty of "love" from his teammates but said that it's a play infielders make all the time, and he probably made it look tougher than it was.
To him, it was just an extension of all the time when he's playing and throwing at odd angles with Rosie, the 2½-year-old pooch he and his wife, Heather, ordered as a get-well present on May 20, 2010, the day of his shoulder surgery.
"We scrap every day," Howell said. "I'm always leaning to the side … always on the move. She got me right, definitely."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]