ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays knew they'd miss left-handed reliever J.P. Howell, who is difficult to replace because of his reliability in retiring hitters on both sides of the plate.
And Sunday's 7-3 loss to the Yankees in front of 31,243 at Tropicana Field was a perfect illustration of how Howell's absence can loom so large, as the Rays (3-3) watched a one-run lead in the sixth disappear in a hurry.
With Howell out until at least mid May with shoulder weakness, the Rays have had to lean more on their only remaining lefty in the bullpen — Randy Choate — in high-leverage situations.
Choate, who struggled in giving up four runs on five hits (and threw 24 pitches) in Saturday's loss, was called upon again in Sunday's most critical moment — the Rays clinging to a 2-1 lead in the sixth with one out, a runner on second and four straight left-handed (or switch) hitters due up for New York.
Two hits, including a two-run homer by Jorge Posada, later, the Yankees took a lead they'd never relinquish. All of a sudden, the Rays' 3-1 start to the season turned into two straight losses to the Yankees (by a combined score of 17-3), with a tough 10-game road trip beginning today in Baltimore.
"No question, J.P.'s absence is felt right now," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "That inning was very critical to get it done and get out of that to keep the lead, and we just didn't do it."
Maddon has confidence in Choate and the others to pick it up. The veteran lefty, who has given up seven hits to the past nine batters he has faced, says he's fine physically, but he has strayed from his strengths.
"My (sinker) just hasn't been there, and I'm kind of pitching like somebody I'm not, trying to go into these righties a lot more than maybe I should," Choate said. "I'm a sinkerball pitcher, and if the ball ain't sinking, that causes for some bad results."
Rays right-hander James Shields had a solid outing but wished he could have lasted longer than 51/3 innings. Like last season, he didn't get much run support as the Rays, nearly no-hit Saturday by CC Sabathia, scattered nine hits (including two by Pat Burrell) but stranded seven runners (six by B.J. Upton, who ended an inning four times).
"We just didn't play the way we can play — and that's it," rightfielder Ben Zobrist said.
Maddon liked a lot of what he saw from the Rays during the season-opening six-game homestand, from his team's intensity and fight to strong starting pitching and impressive plays defensively (Carl Crawford made another spectacular running catch Sunday).
But Maddon said they have to score more so they don't put too much pressure on their pitchers every night, and their bullpen (7.78 ERA), although taxed by 72/3 innings Thursday, needs to be better late.
That includes Choate, who rejuvenated his career last season largely because of the confidence Maddon showed in him. He's ready to bounce back and prove while "I'm not claiming to be J.P.," he can be a guy Maddon can trust in those spots.
"Unfortunately," Choate said. "The last two days, it hasn't gone my way."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]