PORT CHARLOTTE J.P. Howell feels like his old self again after missing a season.
Of course, the Tampa Bay Rays left-handed reliever and ebullient clubhouse presence didnt miss the 2011 campaign he rejoined the team in May and then wobbled down a road marked by inconsistency and intense frustration.
The season he missed was spring. And that contributed to his fall.
Now, for the first time since injuring his shoulder in March 2010, Howell is in camp healthy and exuding optimism. At a time of year when baseball hopes spring eternal, theres even reason to think he might spring back to the deceptive, trick-pitch artist who proved so valuable to the Rays in 2008 and 2009.
I feel great, Howell said. I knew all I needed was just a little time and an offseason to prepare. Thats what I missed last year. I went from rehab to the games, and for guys down the road, its important to make sure you know what youre doing during the rehab, which I did for my shoulder. But also its tough, because youve also got to find a way to get your legs and core involved. And thats what I did not do.
He felt like any work in that regard might damage his left shoulder, repaired prior to the start of the 2010 schedule. The major surgery forced him to miss that entire season, all of spring training last year and the first two months of 2011.
I couldnt hold weights with my hands because my shoulder wasnt ready for that, he said. Theres ways to do it. But definitely in this offseason, I got to prepare and get everything in order. Its been a long haul, and this really is my first (normal) offseason in a long time.
Howell actually missed out on the usual spring training in 2009 as well, participating instead with the U.S. team in the World Baseball Classic. He went straight from there into what became a workhorse role as the de facto Rays closer during the summer until tiring and faltering late in the season, perhaps sowing the seeds for the shoulder injury that would eventually derail him.
So this is the first time in a while that Ive had time to collect myself and really sit down and think about what I want to do and how I want to approach things, he said. It takes a lot of stress out when youre prepared in your mind.
The added work will also give something Howell hasnt had in a while prior to pitching in games that count:
Its the repetitions, thats what help you be able to hit your spot, he said. My problem last year is that I wasnt able to repeat pitches. I could throw one good one and the next one, nine times out of 10 it wasnt going to be the same as that previous pitch. Or vice versa, Id throw a bad one and never got to throw the good one. This year, Ill be able to repeat it three, four, five times in a row. You want to be about 80 percent on your pitches when youre getting in the area of where youre trying to throw them. Last year, I was probably near 30 percent. Its a big difference.
There was nobody on the Rays whose pain you could feel more when Howells last year when he struggled and he never felt lower than in Game 3 of the American League Division Series against Texas. With the Rangers leading 2-1 with two outs in the seventh and the bases loaded, Howell was brought in to face left-handed hitting Josh Hamilton. He got ahead in the count 1-0 but then threw a slider that Hamilton lashed for a two-run single ultimately the difference in a game Texas would win 4-3.
After the game, Howell couldnt contain his misery when asked about giving up the hit in that situation: "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."
Howell never stopped believing, in spite of the anguish he felt.
I knew I had to just fight, he said. It was a great opportunity I was in, as bad as it seemed and went, I was just thankful just to be out there. And thats the difference this year. I can actually focus on my job and what Im supposed to do, as opposed to, Yeah, Im healthy again another day. That was my approach last year, more just feeling happy to be there. It was more like being a rookie again, and all I could do was work hard and stick to it and I knew that it could carry over to this year.
Flash forward to the first week of camp in Port Charlotte, with pitchers and catchers reporting along with most of the position players ahead of schedule. Manager Joe Maddon, who has stuck by Howell steadfastly, expressed optimism when asked about his relievers progress.
I know theres a lot of motivation behind J.P.s offseason and coming here this spring training, he said. Being further removed from surgery (helps along with) the confidence level that were hoping to build during the course of this spring training.
Maddon knows that Howell wished he could have that pitch against Hamilton back, but pointed out that the 28-year-old was good against left-handed hitters. (He was also good against Hamilton, having held him to two hits while striking him out three times in the previous eight encounters).
The challenge, he says, is to get Howell off to a solid, confident start where he starts to get comfy again and feels good about what hes doing.
Thats critical after the bumps in the road last season, in which he finished 2-3 with a 6.16 ERA in 30.2 innings, allowing 30 hits, five homers and an opponents batting average of .259. What was deciding factor to bring him back after such a rocky showing?
If you look at his body of work against lefthanders, it wasnt that bad it was actually pretty good, Maddon said. Hed always been even better against righties, and the righties got him last year thats where things kind of broke (down).
Furthermore, hes a guy coming off a really severe surgery, not just a minor surgery. So you have to be patient. On top of that, youre talking about one of the best (personality) makeup guys Ive ever been affiliated with. So you have to weigh everything and believe he will bounce back as long as hes healthy. You have a very motivated, focused pitcher whos had a lot of success.
His biggest came in 2008, the Rays World Series season, with a record of 6-1 and ERA of 2.22, followed by his 2009 showing of 7-5 with a 2.84 ERA and expanded work as closer.
For me, it was easy that wed want him back, Maddon said. He drips with intangibles. If you get him physically well again, I think youre going to see a lot of what youve seen in the past.
Howell isnt content to settle for the pitcher he once was. I want to shoot above and beyond that, he said. Its definitely possible. Im older now and have a little bit more knowledge and I know some tricks of the trade now. I know how to use my body more. I know how to study film. Im in a great organization that gives you a lot of information and keeps you ahead of the ball.
Now, with a full camp ahead of him for a change, the question is whether Howell can spring forward as the wily reliever Rays fans remember.