BALTIMORE — J.P. Howell watched the ball long enough to see that it was fair, then sank to a knee on the Camden Yards mound and stayed there, head down, feeling as if he'd been punched, ds that seemed like hours.
He had just given up a two-run homer to Matt Wieters on a changeup with two outs in the eighth that cost the Rays dearly. The 4-2 loss to the last-place Orioles dropped them back to four games behind the wild-card-leading Red Sox with 15 left and forced the Rays (82-65) into essentially a must-win tonight to maintain the stakes of the upcoming four-game series in Boston.
"You just get sick," Howell said. "Nothing goes through your mind. You go blank. That's what happened. You get a little nasty feeling."
Howell's failure was the most costly of several by the Rays as the Red Sox — showing that maybe they weren't really that panicked — made a statement with an 18-6 win over Toronto.
Howell was only in that tight of a situation because David Price failed to hold a 2-1 lead an inning earlier, allowing a one-out walk (and a stolen base) then, after falling behind 3-and-1, a two-out double on a misplaced cutter to pinch-hitter Jake Fox, who came in with a .214 average. "He just, you know, he hit it," Price said.
And Price was only in that tight of a situation because the Rays — and doesn't this sound hauntingly familiar — failed to take advantage of an early opportunity to break it open: bases loaded with no outs in the second, John Jaso striking out and Sean Rodriguez grounding into a double play.
Manager Joe Maddon, naturally, minimized the impact.
"Realistically, we were not going to win the rest of our games," he said. "Hopefully we're only going to lose a couple. So let's just move on 'til (today)."
His sentiments were echoed in the quiet clubhouse, but the loss did illustrate two major issues as the Rays try to complete their dash to the playoffs.
If the offense could be silenced again by Alfredo Simon — who set down 12 in a row — and the relief trio of Pedro Strop, Troy Patton and Jim Johnson, what's to happen in the 11 games against Boston and New York?
And, even more pressing, how potentially hazardous will the bullpen be in tight games without closer Kyle Farnsworth, who remains sidelined indefinitely, with Howell, specifically, one of the pitchers being counted on to assume a more significant role?
"Everybody's got to contribute," Maddon said. "That's a particular situation that I believe that he can do. So for us to get into the playoffs and then be successful there, that's the kind of situation he needs to work through. …
"Kyle was not available tonight, so then all of a sudden things become a little bit different. J.P.'s been a rock for us in the past, and he's been doing pretty good work lately. Of course he's not very happy right now, but I have a lot of faith in him."
Howell, who returned from surgery in May, has given up big blasts before, including a walkoff shot to Seattle's Ryan Langerhans that pretty much ended the Rays' 2009 season.
The feeling is always the same.
"It's disgusting," he said. "It makes you sick. You go what the — that should never happen. I'm a professional, too, and in that situation I know what I'm doing and to get beat, especially on a home run, it makes you feel punished, kind of like you took a punch. You've got to get up. … I just soaked it in a little bit."