Howell runs into playoff-bound Yanks

Howell runs into playoff-bound Yanks

ST. PETERSBURG -- Sometimes, you don't realize what you have until it's gone.

In the Devil Rays' case, James Shields missed his second start since being informed on Sept. 18 that his season was over. And once again, the Rays felt his absence.

On Wednesday, crafty left-hander J.P. Howell started in place of Shields for the second time and pitched well for four innings before the residue from Tuesday's come-from-behind feel-good victory went out the window in a seven-run top of the fifth inning.

Six hits, including Robinson Cano's three-run homer, a walk and a hit batsman fueled the Yankees' wrath en route to a 12-4 win over the Rays in front of 21,621 at Tropicana Field.

A week earlier, Howell pitched reasonably well in his first outing as Shields' replacement, taking a 2-1 loss to the Angels at Anaheim while allowing two runs on five hits in six innings. Wednesday night brought a different team and vastly different results.

Howell exited the game with two outs in the fifth, and his line showed nine runs (eight earned) on nine hits, three walks, four strikeouts, a wild pitch, a hit batsman and two home runs allowed.

"Nice start, just a bad inning," Howell said. "I felt really good there for four innings. They kind of spit on a few close calls, fouled a few pitches off, waited for mistakes and that's what they do. That's how they win."

Shields -- he of the 20 quality starts and a 12-8 record -- was told during the recent Angels series that his 215 innings were enough for a season. Howell was then inserted into his slot.

Seeing Howell try to fill Shields' place in the rotation has magnified what the Rays received from Shields all year.

"You're going to see six or seven strong [innings]," Rays manager Joe Maddon said of Shields. "You're going to be in the game. You have a really good chance to win.

"I totally understand what we've been getting from Shields all year, because, wall to wall, that's about as good as I've seen, in regard to consistency, number of pitches per game, how deep he was getting into the game against a variety of different opponents. No, it's not lost on me how good Shieldsy's been."

And for the second time in less than a week, the opposing team celebrated clinching a spot in the postseason on the Rays' turf.

The Red Sox clinched on Saturday night in an 8-6 come-from-behind win, in advance of the Yankees doing the same on Wednesday night.

"I've gone through this before," Maddon said of seeing an opposing team celebrate making the playoffs. "It is so eerily similar to watching the old Mariners celebrate too many times, and eventually, it flipped. And it's going to flip here also. ... I think if you really pay attention to it, you definitely get the feeling that you want to be them. And it is, in a sense, inspirational. I watched it for a while, then I got tired of it, then it got annoying. You definitely want to be them, and I definitely expect us to be the group celebrating in the next couple of years."

One highlight for the Rays on Wednesday night came by virtue of Carlos Pena's bat, as it has so many times this season. The Rays first baseman hit a sacrifice fly and his 43rd home run of the season, passing Jorge Cantu's single-season RBI record of 117.

Pena's 118 RBIs are 36 more than his previous career best, which came with the Tigers in 2004.

"I'm excited -- it's really a cool thing," Pena said. "You don't go out there trying to do it. You keep it simple. I can't begin to tell you how blessed you feel."

On Thursday night, the Rays will play their final home game of the season.

"I'd like for us to finish up strong here," Maddon said. "I want the fans to come out and see us and to see that there is a better product out there, something that they can look forward to in the near future. So for me, I'm looking forward to it, [Scott Kazmir] pitching it. And if we happen to win that game tomorrow night, we end up with an even record against the Yankees for the season, and that would be quite an accomplishment."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.