"There's a lot of stuff down there," Howell said. "They always ask us to move the [stuff] and we're like 'Oh, what's that going to do?'"
On Tuesday, all that bullpen junk took center stage, and an improbable bounce nearly cost the Rays a 4-2 win vs. the Red Sox.
With Ben Zobrist on first base with no outs in the eighth and the game tied at 2, an errant throw toward first base by Red Sox reliever Daniel Bard on a bunt by Willy Aybar flew down the right-field line and bounced squarely into that bag of balls, resulting in an automatic advance of two bases for the runners.
But Zobrist, who was rounding third base by the time Boston right fielder J.D. Drew raised up his arms to signal an unplayable bounce, had to return to third as a result, and the Rays were denied a run.
"I could've scored from the dugout on that play," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
Zobrist ended up being stranded on third as the Red Sox bullpen got out of a bases-loaded, no out jam. The Rays went on to win in 13 innings on a walk-off home run by Evan Longoria. But there would've been no consolation had the "ballbag botch-up" ended up costing Tampa Bay the game.
"To not have won that game based on that play would've been really annoying," Maddon said. "About as annoying as that word can be. The fact that we were able to pull through it is, obviously, really good. That was a really exasperating moment."
Maddon went out to argue the play, but quickly realized he had no grounds for a case with home-plate umpire Jerry Layne.
"Once he gave me that explanation I have nowhere to go," Maddon said. "I have no nothing. And, obviously, I can't see it from our dugout. It's really an unfortunate play."
The ruling fell under the category of rule 7.05 (g) of the Official Rulebook, stating that a runner may advance two bases when a thrown ball goes into the "stands, or into a bench (whether or not the ball rebounds into the field), or over or under or through a field fence, or on a slanting part of the screen above the backstop, or remains in the meshes of a wire screen protecting spectators. The ball is dead. When such wild throw is the first play by an infielder, the umpire, in awarding such bases, shall be governed by the position of the runners at the time the ball was pitched; in all other cases the umpire shall be governed by the position of the runners at the time the wild throw was made."
"Usually we know, hey, if that thing goes into the corner in the bullpen, if you can see it, go get it. dig it out of there," Drew said. "Tonight, I was running, I was waiting for it to come off the wall, saw it go in the bag. I threw my hands up immediately."
Howell said he was right there when it happened and he could not believe the ill-fated bounce -- something he'd never seen before and never thought he'd see.
"It hopped right in that bag," Howell said. "It hurt us, too. You didn't expect it. We were like, 'Yeah, we got one in at least,' and then they get sent back to second and third and we're going 'oh no'. It's just one of those things."
Maddon took the blame upon himself after the game, saying that he should have been a better stickler for making his players keep equipment off the ground during games. He added that the ballbag will certainly not be where it was again.
"That stuff should be moved or put up where it can't interfere with the play like that," Maddon said. "It's a one-in-a-million situation, but you can lose pennants by one game."
Zach Schonbrun is an assocaite reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.