The Blue Jays' win snapped a two-game Rays winning streak and dropped the Rays to four games behind the Red Sox in the American League Wild Card race.
Howell entered the game with two out in the eighth and stopped a Blue Jays rally by striking out Travis Snider to end the inning. Thursday being an off-day, coupled with the fact Howell had not pitched a lot lately, persuaded Rays manager Joe Maddon to send the left-hander out to pitch the ninth with the Rays protecting a 2-1 lead.
After retiring John McDonald on a popup, the Rays needed just two outs to earn a three-game sweep over the Blue Jays. But Toronto manager Cito Gaston elected to go to his bench for pinch-hitter Rod Barajas, who had a good idea about what he would be looking for from Howell.
"He's able to throw any pitch at any time, and he has full confidence in all of his pitches, so I figured he's going to try to get me out with his out pitch," Barajas said. "He did throw something soft -- he threw me a curveball, and it ended up being right where I like it."
Barajas deposited the pitch over the left-field wall to tie the game at 2.
He was "sitting on it, obviously, and he crushed it," Howell said. "That's what the problem was. Location and he was sitting on it -- bad combo.
"After you give up a home run like that you need to move on. I think I did, but the results didn't come."
Howell walked the next hitter, Marco Scutaro, on four pitches, but retired Aaron Hill on a deep fly ball to center field for the second out; Scutaro moved to second on the play, representing the winning run. Inexplicably, Howell continued to struggle with his control at this point as Vernon Wells and Kevin Millar drew two-out walks to load the bases. Howell had a 2-2 count on Randy Ruiz when he uncorked a wild pitch that ricocheted high into the air off catcher Gregg Zaun's shin guard. Scutaro scored easily.
"A really, really short curveball," Zaun said. "I'm not sure how short it was, but it was a really short one. I did all I could to get body on it. It hit off my shin guard, popped straight in the air. Unfortunately it just seemed to hang there for about six seconds. I had no chance to make a play.
"I hate losing games like that. It's a quirky thing. I'd rather see a guy earn it with a base hit. And we had the guy down two strikes. We had a chance to get out of the inning and get back in the dugout to try and score us a run."
Historically speaking, Wednesday night produced the third loss in Rays history on a walk-off wild pitch. Victor Zambrano's wild pitch against the Tigers on April 17, 2002, was the first time it happened. Al Levine also did it against the Cubs on June 3, 2003.
Wednesday night's contest began as a pitching duel between a pair of left-handers, Scott Kazmir and Marc Rzepczynski.
Rzepczynski held the Rays hitless for 5 2/3 innings before Pat Burrell laced a single to right field. Gabe Kapler followed by hitting a 1-1 pitch over the left-field wall for his fifth home run of the season and a 2-0 Rays lead.
Meanwhile, Kazmir held the Blue Jays scoreless on two hits through five innings before Jose Bautista's two-out double in the sixth drove home Millar to cut the Rays' lead to 2-1. Kazmir finished with a season-high 10 strikeouts while giving the Rays his fifth quality start in his last six outings.
But Wednesday night's loss brought a haunting reminder that it's not about how you start a game, rather how you finish.