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J.P. Howell's return to the Tampa Bay Rays bullpen isn't coming soon enough for him

Reliever J.P. Howell has not pitched this season because of arm fatigue.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times (2008)

Reliever J.P. Howell has not pitched this season because of arm fatigue.

In the gray, forgotten purgatory that is the disabled list, J.P. Howell tries to lose himself in the routine.

Every day, he dons his warmups, and every day, he does his work. He sits in the bullpen as if the phone might somehow ring for him, and he rocks back and forth. He cheers, and he grins, and he watches his teammates do amazing things.

And every day, Howell dies just a little inside.

Being a spectator is killing him, okay? This is like watching a party through a plate-glass window. This is like seeing all the other kids get a pony ride while you're sick in bed. This is Howell, a million miles away from the pitcher's mound.

"This is worse than giving up a walkoff (home run)," Howell said. "Give up a walkoff, and you get to play the next day. This is worse than anything that can happen on a field, man. It's not even close."

How many times? In the first month of the season, how many times have you thought, "This would be a perfect situation for J.P."? How many times, when the situation got sticky, did you think of the Rays' delightfully spacey, eternally optimistic left-hander?

"I've tried to stop," manager Joe Maddon said, "especially against the Yankees. J.P. is a good guy against the Yankees because they have so many switch-hitters and he's probably our best bullpen guy against lefties and righties. He's so versatile. He's like the (Ben) Zobrist of the bullpen."

Over the past two years, the Rays' best two years, Howell has been the most consistent performer out of the bullpen. Both years, his ERA has been under 3.00. Both years, opponents have batted less than .200 against him. He was not quite a fit as a closer last season, but he still managed 17 saves (although he blew eight).

Soon, Howell insists. Soon, he will be back.

The team says the end of May, but with pitchers, it's always a good idea to add a week, maybe two, just to be sure. June, maybe? The All-Star break?

Howell won't hear the words. In his mind, he has been gone too long as it is.

"It's coming quicker than I expected," Howell said. "I think the trainers would say the same. It will be the end of May because of the throwing program, but physically, I feel like it could be now."

Maddon is more cautious: "I keep telling him not to do too much too soon. I'm confident he'll be the same guy eventually. We're going to have to watch him when he gets back. I tell him we aren't going to the World Series without him."

For Howell, this figured to be a good season. For the first time since Troy Percival's injury, Howell's role was defined. He was going to stomp out the fires in the seventh and eighth innings. He was going to be the setup man for closer Rafael Soriano.

In spring training, however, Howell's arm didn't respond. He figured the soreness was just routine, but the fatigue concerned him. The more tired his arm got, the weaker it became.

"That's a sign of inflammation," Howell said. "It was like you could throw one day and you'd be fine. Then you'd throw again, and it wouldn't recover. It was just beating it up each time.

"I think it's been going on for years and years. Every arm gets to a point where it's too much, and I got to mine. If I had pitched through the pain, something bad was going to happen. It was coming. I think I was as close to it as you can get."

Still, it was a difficult day for Howell when the Rays decided to shut him down. At first, he wondered if it would be career-threatening. He thought he might be out for the season.

He was moody, he admitted. Late at night, the doubts would come.

Now, Howell seems confident again.

"I have zero doubt," Howell said. "I'm going to be healthy the rest of my career. I know it's close."

How much does Howell miss it? How much would you miss, say, a lung? This is the kid who told everyone he was going to be a baseball player from the time he was a child. There is a family story that when J.P. was 6, his father told him he could be a doctor.

"Some people are born to be doctors, and some are born to be lawyers," Howell said. "I was born to be a baseball player."

Soon, perhaps, Howell will be reborn.

Soon, perhaps, he will join the party.

"I'm so proud of these guys," Howell said. "I'm not sure of the words to describe it. I get goose bumps the whole time they are playing. They're a bunch of carefree guys who get prepared for a game like an NFL team. They're aggressive. They're positive. They're like this choo-choo train."

And as for the guy who was left at the station?

"I can't get on," he said. "But a few more weeks, and I'll get a ticket."

J.P. Howell's return to the Tampa Bay Rays bullpen isn't coming soon enough for him 05/03/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 4, 2010 7:50am]
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