The life of a LOOGY is not all sunflower seeds and crossword puzzles.
While it's true that the so-called "Lefty One-Out Guy" on a Major League team's pitching staff typically doesn't work as many innings as many of his mates in the bullpen, he often finds himself brought into the most pressurized situations against the top left-handed sluggers and switch hitters in all of baseball. Unlike most pitchers, who have the opportunity to find their groove out on the mound over the course of at least one inning, these specialists generally come in just to face a specific hitter. If starting pitchers and rubber-armed, workhorse relievers are the general practitioners of baseball medicine then perhaps a LOOGY is like a cardiac surgeon. He may have plenty of free time for golf but when he's scrubbed in the situation is likely dire.
Such was the case when Tampa Rays manager Joe Maddon summoned J.P. Howell from the bullpen with two outs in the top of the seventh inning on Monday. By the time Howell got the ball from Maddon, the bases were loaded and his team had surrendered its slim lead. The Rangers were now winning, 2-1, and threatening to blow the game open. And coming up to bat? 2010 American League MVP Josh Hamilton.
After swinging and missing at Howell's slider to open the at-bat, Hamilton stayed back, waiting, on the second pitch. He took the second slider and pulled it on a line between first and second. Two more runs came home on Hamilton's single, pushing the score to 4-1 in the Rangers' favor. With right-handed Michael Young up next, Howell was pulled for Juan Cruz, who recorded the third out of the frame.
The Rays would close the gap to 4-3 in the late innings, but could not come all the way back. The Game 3 loss leaves them on the brink of elimination. After the game, Howell told reporters just how devastated he felt for not retiring Hamilton.
"Disgusting. You know, it made me sick. You know, it feels bad. I feel terrible. I feel like a loser. I feel like the reason why [we lost]. I feel a lot of things, but one of them is definitely disgust, a little disappointment. But I know I can do it. I know I can do it. And it's just, I gotta go do it. That's it."
It seems that Howell let his performance weigh on him so heavily, in part, because he knows that he can get Hamilton out. Entering last night's matchup with the Rangers' slugger, Howell had limited Hamilton to just two hits in their eight previous confrontations. While one of those two knocks had been a home run, Howell had managed to strike him out three times.
Howell's ability to retire right-handers may keep him from being just a lefty specialist like his soft-tossing predecessor in the Rays' pen, Chad Bradford, but he is not immune to the pressures and pitfalls of the high-wire position.