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A FAMILIAR MELTDOWN COSTS RAYS ONCE AGAIN

For most of this season, J.P. Howell was unflappable.

The crafty, California-cool lefty was so reliable, he turned into the Rays' unofficial closer, converting 13 straight save opportunities at one point. Howell may not have thrown 90 mph, but he got some of the Rays' biggest outs.

But in the past two weeks, Howell - for whatever reason - hasn't been the same.

The struggles continued Friday night, when Howell was charged with three runs in the ninth, leading to a disappointing 4-3 loss to the Tigers in front of 18,596 at Tropicana Field.

Howell has three blown saves - and two losses - in his past six outings. And after Friday's loss, which spoiled another sparkling performance by rookie Jeff Niemann - the Rays (72-62) missed a chance to make up a game on the Red Sox and Rangers in the American League wild-card race.

Howell relieved Niemann in the eighth and got two outs, preserving a 1-1 tie.

But in the ninth, Howell walked two batters, and with one out, he gave up the go-ahead single to Adam Everett before getting pulled.

Tigers closer Fernando Rodney had a rough night as well, as the Rays continued to show their fight. He walked the first two batters he faced in the ninth and gave up an RBI single to Carlos Pena and an RBI double to Evan Longoria, putting the tying run on third (and winning run on second) with two outs. But pinch-hitter Willy Aybar grounded out to first to end the rally.

It was the second time in the past five days that Niemann matched Tigers ace Justin Verlander in a pitchers' duel, only to leave the game with a no-decision.

Niemann and Verlander were picked in the top five of the 2004 draft but hadn't faced each other until Sunday. In those two games against the Tigers, Niemann has allowed just four runners in scoring position and recorded seven 1-2-3 innings.

Manager Joe Maddon has said one big key for Niemann's success this season has been his ability to maintain his composure and poise in difficult moments, and the 6-foot-9 Texan did it again against the Tigers.

In the second inning, Niemann gave up a leadoff double to former Ray Aubrey Huff then an infield single to Carlos Guillen, putting runners on the corners with no outs.

But Niemann settled down, getting Brandon Inge to pop out, Gerald Laird to strike out and Everett to foul out, thwarting the threat.

Verlander, who has had his share of success against the Rays, was equally as impressive, working through eight innings.

The Rays took an early lead in the second, when Pena - who Maddon said is swinging the bat better than he ever has - led off the second with a double. And with one out, Longoria knocked Pena in with a double of his own.

Niemann continued to cruise until the sixth, when with two outs and a 3-and-2 count on Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers slugger ripped a solo homer into the leftfield stands, tying the score at 1.

Although Niemann got out of jams, Howell couldn't get back on track. It appears Howell hasn't been the same since he gave up a two-out, two-run winning homer to Seattle's Ryan Langerhans on Aug. 7. In the 10 appearances that followed, Howell has given up seven earned runs in nine innings (7.00 ERA), blown three saves and picked up two losses.

Joe Smith can be reachedat joesmith@sptimes.com

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