The closer-by-committee concept that Rays manager Joe Maddon maintained earlier in the season? It's fading fast. Instead, it's beginning to look more and more like a committee of one.
Maddon has handed the keys to the ninth inning to Howell on a regular basis of late, and he continued that practice on Tuesday night with the Rays clinging to a 3-2 lead against the White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field. As has become expected, Howell rewarded Maddon's decision, striking out two and pitching a scoreless ninth to earn his 10th save of the season.
Even Howell, who had not been willing earlier this season to admit that he was the Rays closer, suggested the closer-by-committee idea was about dead.
"I think we were just kind of saying that," Howell said. "It's obvious right now. But at the same time, it doesn't take away the fact that anyone could close in the ninth. We still feel that way, but I think we can guess who's going to be going in at certain times. We're getting the hang of it."
Howell struggled in a relief role earlier in the season, earning two saves but blowing five more save opportunities, with the majority of those blown saves coming when he entered before the ninth inning.
But when closer Troy Percival went on the disabled list on May 22 with right shoulder tendinitis, Howell was the one who ultimately filled the ninth-inning role. And he has performed with aplomb.
Over Howell's last 17 appearances, he is 4-0 and has converted eight consecutive save opportunities with 20 strikeouts and four walks. On the season, he is 5-2 with a 1.93 ERA.
Maddon credited Howell for throwing first-pitch strikes, particularly of late, to keep his ninth innings short and sweet.
"All these saves he's gotten have been pretty much within 15 or less pitches or 16 or less pitches, which is kind of nice," Maddon said. "When you do that, then you feel really comfortable about using the guy the next day."
Indeed, in all four of Howell's saves since the All-Star break, he has not thrown more than 15 pitches. And two times during that span, he threw just 10 pitches. In those four outings, the 6-foot, 180-pound lefty has registered six strikeouts, no walks and one hit.
Rays starting pitcher Scott Kazmir said he had the utmost confidence in Howell's abilities as a closer.
"He's a perfect guy for the spot," Kazmir said. "He has a closer mentality. He's not going to overpower you, but you can just tell that the way the hitters are approaching him, they can't pick up anything on him. Everything he throws is almost the same speed and arm motion, but one pitch will fade out and one pitch will dive straight to the ground. He's the perfect guy for the job."
Maddon maintained before Wednesday's game that there may be times down the road when he pitches Howell in the eighth and uses another reliever in the ninth inning.
For now, however, the ninth appears to belong to Howell, who couldn't be happier about his role.
"It's unbelievable, man," Howell said. "I get the credit for the save, but the team put me in that situation, so it's something that's pretty special. It's hard work as a team. I'm there to shut the door, and they like that. I'm feeling that, and I'm really enjoying it."
Jesse Temple is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less