OAKLAND — Jay Howell surely saw him. The fan with the tight jersey and big belly stood in the stands behind home plate before Game 4 of the World Series, shaking his right arm like a noodle, screaming in the voice of a soprano.
"I'm Jay Howell, I'm Jay Howell," he squeaked.
Four hours later, the Dodger relief pitcher shouted back.
Wrong, he said with a fastball to Mark McGwire, with a slider to Jose Canseco, with 32 pitches that may cling forever to his memory. This is Jay Howell .
And this was redemption at its richest, 2 innings worth of 2-hit shutout relief for the World Series bad boy as he collected the save in the Dodgers' 4-3 win over the Oakland Athletics.
"In my career," Howell admitted, "this game was the biggest."
Perhaps because it was not so much a game as an X-ray. It was a test not of inside pitches, but of insides, period. More than any Dodger, Howell's postseason has mirrored that of his team, now within a victory of becoming the most improbable of World Series champions.
Two weeks ago, David Cone of the New York Mets said Howell has the curveball of a high school pitcher. A couple of days later, the National League office called him a cheater. Then last week, Oakland's Don Baylor implied that he is gutless.
Finally, in Tuesday night's Game 3, entering in the ninth inning of a 1-1 tie, he had a chance to prove something. Nine pitches later, he had.
He proved them all right.
McGwire hit a game-winning homer, and upon Jay Howell's reputation everyone danced.
"He was blistered by the media and fans, just blistered," Manager Tom Lasorda said. "The things that were said about him were just terrible. Terrible."
So Wednesday night, fewer than 24 hours later, what does Lasorda do? In Game 4's seventh inning with the tying run on second base, 2 outs and the heart of the A's order coming up, what does this man do? He pages Jay Howell.
"Like I told him (Tuesday) night, the next thing I was going to do was get him back in a game as quick as I could," Lasorda said. "A young man falls off a horse, you put him back up there as soon as you can."
So into the Oakland Coliseum rode Jay Howell, and most of the crowd of 49,319 didn't boo. They did worse than boo. They cheered.
"It seemed like they were glad to see me," Howell said, shaking his head. "I guess I would be happy, too."
After Canseco walked and Dave Parker reached base on shortstop Alfredo Griffin's error to load the bases, all he did was retire McGwire on a pop-up to first base.
The next inning, after pinch-hitter Ron Hassey hit a 2-out single, all he did was strike out Walt Weiss on 3 pitches.
Finally, in the ninth, after Dave Henderson reached base on a 1-out single, all he did was strike out Canseco and retire Parker on a foul pop-up to third base to end the game.
As soon as Jeff Hamilton caught the foul, Howell was chased down and mugged by Lasorda, by Mickey Hatcher, by so many blue uniforms that all you could see was the blond hair and the smile.
As soon as the Dodgers caught their breath, it was Howell's critics who were mugged.
"The story of this game is Jay Howell," Mike Scioscia said. "I hope all the people who took cheap shots at him take this effort and put it where the sun don't shine. Tonight showed what Jay Howell is all about."
Chortled Lasorda: "In (Wednesday's) newspapers, one guy wrote that Jay Howell didn't have any stomach. Another guy was saying this and that bad thing about him. Now I'm dying to see what will be in (Thursday's) newspapers. I can't wait to read those headlines."
Many in the Dodger clubhouse verbally fired in revenge for Howell. All except Howell.
"People are going to say a lot of things, but I don't feel its very healthy or productive to say things back, particularly if you know that those things are wrong," he said. "Why fuel fire? Why dwell on negatives."
So smiling softly and sipping on a Coke, Howell dismissed his critics and dwelled on the positive.
How good did he feel? "I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a great feeling," he said. "It's as good of a feeling as (Tuesday) night was a bad feeling."
How did he recover so fast from Tuesday night? "A lot of guys on the team came over to me and told me not to worry about it," he said. "Kirk Gibson came over and told me that I had been doing it all year for them and that I was the man and that I shouldn't even think about it. I know I believe all that, but it's nice to hear."
And how did he feel on the mound Wednesday night with the bases loaded in the seventh inning? "Like I was very close to diving into a pool of piranhas," he said. "I really had to concentrate."
From that seventh inning on, his concentration was extraordinary. He retired McGwire on 1 pitch, a fastball. In the eighth, 2 of the strikes on Weiss were called.
Then in the ninth, he retired Canseco on the sixth pitch, a dropping slider, after he had thrown 3 balls.
"It was the only pitch I had left," Howell said smiling.