ST. PETERSBURG — In a Rays bullpen that has been the majors' best since the All-Star break, LHP J.P. Howell has shined.
Howell did it again Saturday night against the Orioles, striking out four of the six hitters he faced over two scoreless innings. He completed the feat in just 18 pitches, 14 of them strikes.
"J.P. was really sharp; he was incredibly good," manager Joe Maddon said. "They didn't get good swings on him, I thought he was really good. J.P. is really showing flashes of the past right now."
Howell extended his scoreless innings streak to 20, tying RHP Fernando Rodney for the longest active streak by a reliever and putting him one inning shy of the club record by a reliever (Joe Borowski in 2005).
Maddon said a key is Howell's deception is back.
"He's starting to get the movement on the fastball that he had," he said. "You can see the breaking ball with much better depth; they're getting worse swings on it. The hitter is not on him like they had been last year."
DOG DAY: LHP David Price will have a special fan at Tropicana Field for today's start against the Orioles. His French bulldog, Astro, will be one of about 450 dogs on hand for the team's first "Bark in the Park" event.
Astro is no stranger to the stadium, having made a cameo on the field during the workout day before the 2010 AL Division Series against the Rangers, watching as Price threw a bullpen session. "He might come out there on the mound," Price joked of Astro. "He can have a mound visit instead of (pitching coach Jim) Hickey."
ON TRACK: DH Luke Scott was encouraged by how he felt after a second straight day of hitting in the batting cage, saying the "best-case scenario" would be a return by the end of this homestand.
Scott, out since July 21 with a mild right external oblique strain, said a big step will be today when he takes live batting practice before the game against the Orioles. Scott is eligible to come off the disabled list today but would likely need at least a short rehab assignment. He said he hopes to be back by the upcoming road trip that starts Friday.
"I'm very excited," he said.
Scott didn't feel any soreness after Saturday's session, saying "everything was very loose," and he was able to get some extension in his swing. He said he may need only 5-10 at-bats in a rehab assignment but likes where he's at right now.
"Getting back to normal," Scott said. "It was very, very encouraging."
LONGO UPDATE: 3B Evan Longoria (partially torn left hamstring) played in his third straight game for Triple-A Durham, going 0-for-3 with a hit-by-pitch as DH. Maddon said Longoria had felt some general soreness after Friday's game but felt good enough to play Saturday, his seventh game of the rehab assignment. Maddon said Longoria likely will be off today then re-evaluated Monday.
STANDING TALL: RHP Jeff Niemann (broken right fibula) will throw a bullpen session today. He could start a rehab assignment with Class A Charlotte by the middle of the week.
FOR THE BIRDS: The Rays have used a five-man infield before, but Friday marked a first, according to Ben Zobrist, with a pigeon finding its way onto the field during the game. "One extra defender," Zobrist quipped. "It was right in front of second base at some point," he said. "A pretty looking bird."
MISCELLANY: LHP Matt Moore and another player will sign autographs for kids 14 and under today from 12:15 to 12:45 p.m. down the rightfield line. … Durham LHP Alex Torres was placed on the disabled list, retroactive to Wednesday. … Though the "Bark in the Park" tickets are sold out for today's game, there are still regular (human-only) game tickets available.