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J.P. Howell seizes role of closer even if it comes without a formal declaration from Tampa Bay Rays

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The man-who-is-not-a-closer heads out to the bullpen a little later than normal these days. Used to be, he would leave the dugout around the first or second inning to get himself ready for whatever role he would be playing in the game.

Now, because he seems to be pitching a lot in the ninth inning, he takes his time heading to the bullpen because he doesn't want to get too antsy too quickly. Who knew not being a closer could be so strenuous?

Turns out, the man-who-is-not-a-closer is pitching in a lot of high-leverage situations. Like the last inning or so of all the close games. In fact, he has been in every ninth-inning save opportunity for more than a month, except when he was unavailable because of overuse. Not that anyone is counting, but he now leads the team in saves.

The man-who-is-not-a-closer kind of, um, looks like one.

Wouldn't you agree, J.P. Howell?

"Yeah, I guess," Howell said. "But if they don't want to name a closer, then that's fine, too."

It's not that the Rays do not want to name a closer. They just have no reason to. Depending on the situation, manager Joe Maddon has faith in a lot of relievers, and so he doesn't want to get caught up in job titles or unnecessary expectations. And if he thinks the eighth will be more difficult than the ninth, he wants the freedom to use Howell sooner rather than later.

But if you absolutely, positively, most definitely need to know, then, yes, Howell is the closer of choice.

"You could say that," Maddon said.

There's certainly no shame in saying that. Since being converted from a starter in spring 2008, Howell has probably been the most dominant reliever (non-closer category) in the league. Howell's 2.15 ERA over that span is the best in baseball for pitchers with at least 125 innings.

Beyond the statistics, he has been fairly irreplaceable during that time. Howell ate up innings early last season as a long reliever, became a trusted set-up man by midseason and has pretty much assumed the ninth-inning role since Troy Percival went down this year. The transformation is astonishing for a pitcher who was 5-14 with no saves and a 6.34 ERA and has since gone 11-3 with 11 saves and the 2.15 ERA.

It's as if he was made for the job of a late-inning pitcher, even if his appearance seems miscast. I mean, he doesn't look intimidating. He doesn't break 90 mph on the radar gun. A more easy-going guy would be difficult to find.

"Your elite closers normally have a dominant pitch or dominant command. You got Mariano Rivera with the cutter or Trevor Hoffman with the changeup," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "In J.P.'s case, if you take the combination of really, really good command, three really good pitches and a lot of (guts), you've got the makings of a pretty good closer.

"Where people get conflicted is they want the prototypical closer, which is a physically large man with the heavy metal music playing and blowing batters away. That's what people want. But a guy who is not afraid of the situation is gigantic, and he's not afraid."

Afraid? No. Rambunctious? Occasionally.

If Howell, 26, has had one drawback this season, it has been coming into situations with runners on base. He has allowed 43 percent of inherited runners to score, which is definitely on the high end of the scale. And that accounts for his five blown saves, all of which came early in the season when he was brought in with runners on base before the ninth.

"I've seen him a few times where he's been a little bit stressed. If you see that, it's just good to go out there and say, 'Hey, what's going on? Just relax,' " Maddon said. "You just get him to laugh, and he's fine."

Unlike guys who throw 95 mph, Howell is at his best when he isn't overthrowing. He may actually be better throwing fastballs around 85-86 instead of trying to hit 88-89 because it makes his curve that much more effective. Howell throws his curve around 80-81 mph, which is a relatively high speed and makes it harder to distinguish from his fastball.

"There are a lot of people who throw like me, who are throwing fastballs around 87 mph," Howell said. "The thing is you have to hit your spots. It's all mental. The reason guys like that can hit that corner at 87 is because they don't have any fear. That's how I look at it. This is my job, this is the way I throw the ball and if you hit my best pitch, there's nothing I can do about it. But I'm not going to be afraid."

On consecutive nights in Kansas City, Howell has picked up saves with perfect ninth-inning performances. He has faced six hitters, retired six hitters and thrown 17 strikes in 20 pitches.

Not that he is a closer or anything.

J.P. Howell seizes role of closer even if it comes without a formal declaration from Tampa Bay Rays 07/18/09 [Last modified: Sunday, July 19, 2009 12:09am]
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