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Howell unofficially serving as Rays' closer

Howell unofficially serving as Rays' closer

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ST. PETERSBURG -- Manager Joe Maddon remains steadfast in his preference for keeping his bullpen-by-committee, though he said on Sunday that his relievers have a "good idea what inning they're pitching."

That includes J.P. Howell, who has successfully pitched the ninth inning the past three nights and appears to be filling the role as the team's closer.

"They're at the point now where they look at the other team's lineup, and they have a pretty good idea where they're pitching," Maddon said. "I know they get it. The whole group knows where they're going to stack up."

Howell earned his fifth save of the season in Sunday afternoon's 5-2 win over Florida, entering in the ninth inning with the bases loaded and a 5-1 lead. He walked Wes Helms but struck out the next two batters to end the game.

Afterward, though, Howell was asked if he felt he was the team's closer, and he immediately shook his head.

"No way, man," Howell said. "We're doing the closer-by-committee. That's how it is. I think just naming a closer would limit our bullpen."

It was the third straight save for Howell, who also picked up wins on Friday and Saturday and hasn't given up an earned run since May 23. He's 4-0 with 22 strikeouts and six hits over that span.

"I just know that he's got the makeup and the stuff to [close]," Maddon said. "You look at his pedigree in regard to striking out hitters. Power comes in different forms, too."

Since Troy Percival went down with an injury on May 22, Maddon has maintained his desire to avoid officially naming a closer. In addition to Powell, Randy Choate, Grant Balfour, Lance Cormier and Joe Nelson have each picked up saves this season.

But more recently, as questions continued to be raised about the bullpen, those roles appeared to be getting hammered out.

"Everybody down there has a real good idea what inning slots up for us," Nelson said. "We know who's coming up, and when the phone rings, most of the time, we know it's one or two guys [getting called], it just depends who's fresher."

Whatever the roles, Tampa Bay's bullpen has been especially impressive recently. Sunday's earned run was just the seventh the group has allowed since June 8. Since blowing a 10-run lead to Cleveland on May 25, the bullpen has a 2.00 ERA.

Howell, who throws primarily soft breaking stuff and rarely reaches 90 mph on the radar gun, isn't the prototypical closer. But whether he likes to admit it or not, he seems to be filling those shoes with undeniable success.

"All of us down there, we're really feeding off each other," Howell said. "We're trying to get big outs, and it could be any one of us. That's what's so unique about the situation."

Zach Schonbrun is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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