SEATTLE — Back in the far corner of the visiting clubhouse, past where Wade Davis was pulling on his board shorts and across from where David Price was adjusting his blue goggles and orange float ring for the beachwear travel theme, J.P. Howell sat in his underwear, hunched into his locker, head in his hands.
The lefty reliever had just failed the Rays again, his poor eighth inning a primary reason why a potentially inspiring comeback win instead turned into a discouraging 9-6 loss Sunday, and Howell was in no mood for such fun and games, so distraught that manager Joe Maddon took the unusual step to come over to ask if he was okay.
"It breaks your heart, man," Howell said a few moments later. "To see your boys, I just watched the whole game, I see them do what they did. Beautiful. Then to go in there and get ugly on it and mess it up, it doesn't feel that good."
Howell, whose return from shoulder surgery has been rocky, wasn't the only one feeling bad. A few lockers away, Joel Peralta was nearly as down. After Howell gave up the tying run by allowing a one-out walk to Justin Smoak then singles to Jack Cust (a grounder beating the Rays shift) and Adam Kennedy, Peralta gave away the game, giving up a three-run homer to catcher Miguel Olivo, who had hit a two-run shot off him in the eighth Saturday.
"It's really tough," Peralta said. "I let the team down. It's on me, you know. I go in and do the job, we got a chance to win. But I didn't, so it's on me."
So after an improved, though still flawed, outing by Davis, and after a three-run eighth-inning rally capped by a clutch two-out pinch-hit single by Evan Longoria, the Rays were let down by their bullpen.
"We played well," Maddon said. "We hit the ball well (Sunday). We've been doing things we wanted to do. On this particular day, we just didn't get the pitching we're accustomed to, and thus we lose."
"Kind of a heartbreaker," Longoria said. "It was an opportunity to split a series against a team who's playing pretty good baseball right now. And to battle the whole game the way we did and get ahead there and then see it go back the other way is pretty tough."
The loss was the Rays' 12th in their past 18th games, and in those three weeks, they have gone from holding a three-game lead in the AL East to dropping four games back at 30-29, tied with the Blue Jays for third.
After going 1-3 in Seattle, they now head to Anaheim for the next stop on their 11-game, four-city road trip.
Maddon said he didn't second-guess any of his moves. "Everything was right; we did everything I think was appropriate," he said. "It's just that J.P. had a tough day and then Joel, even (Saturday) and (Sunday), I felt good in that moment. And Olivo got him twice.
"Sometimes things don't work out. It doesn't mean it was the wrong thing to do."
He feels Howell, who has an 18.90 ERA in five appearances since coming back May 20 (allowing eight hits and two walks in 31/3 innings), is just rusty and needs more work, and he plans to continue to use him in key situations.
"For us to be successful, he's got to be able to do that," Maddon said. "That's how we're built. So if that is the particular player's role, then you've got to keep putting him out there because you believe it's gonna work. And I do. I felt good about him going out there."
Howell said his shoulder feels great and his velocity is better than it had been, so it's just a matter of pitching better.
"I guess I'm just not as sharp as I normally am," he said. "I don't want to make any excuses, but this is my April a little bit, and these guys are starting to hit stride. I need to just maybe get out there a little more frequently."
He remains confident, of course, that he can do the job. And that he won't have many more days of feeling as bad as he did Sunday.
"It's really frustrating at this point," Howell said. "The boys played great. It hurts a little bit."
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.