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Reliever J.P. Howell struggling in his return to Tampa Bay Rays

ST. PETERSBURG — Rays reliever J.P. Howell feels good physically after missing 2010 and the first 44 games of this season recovering from surgery to repair a torn left labrum.

But it's going to take more than a few appearances for him to shoulder the pressure of being in sticky situations again.

Howell allowed four runs, three unearned, without retiring a batter in the eighth inning of Saturday's 7-3 loss to the Indians.

"Everything just seems a little choppy when it's going rough,'' Howell said. "You never feel smooth in this kind of situation with me right now. But at the same time, I've got to keep swinging and things will happen.''

With the Rays trailing 3-2, Howell replaced starter James Shields and yielded a two-strike single to Indians CF Michael Brantley. But he got SS Asdrubal Cabrera to ground into what looked like a double play, but 2B Ben Zobrist misplayed the ball into an error.

Howell then hit RF Shin-Soo Choo with a pitch, and pinch-hitter Shelley Duncan singled off the leftfield wall to score two.

In three games, after pitching 21/3 innings, Howell has an ERA of 11.57.

"I'm getting whacked in the face a little bit in baseball, so I've got to stick with it and punch back in the days to come,'' he said. "At this point, I'm learning a lot about getting back into it. It's like if it doesn't happen, I find myself taking a step back instead of a step forward. The more situations you get into, you'll get back in it.''

Manager Joe Maddon said he is confident Howell will improve with each outing. "I asked him afterward, and he said he felt really good,'' Maddon said. "That's what I wanted to hear, that he felt good. That he repeated well. He probably deserved a better fate, but he's fine.''

NIEMANN ON THE MEND: The Rays miss RHP Jeff Niemann, who has been on the disabled list since May 6 with a lower back strain. But there's reason to believe he could return soon.

Niemann is scheduled to throw a 45-pitch simulated game Monday, and although Maddon has no timetable for his return, his progress is encouraging. Friday, Niemann threw a bullpen session, and he did fielding drills before Saturday's game.

"Then after that (Monday) we'll start building him up by going out on rehab,'' Maddon said. "He may be able to do that sooner because the injury was a back and not an arm injury, so you can be a little more aggressive with the rehab.''

QUOTE OF THE DAY: Maddon, on the Rays averaging three runs per game at home, worst in the AL and 28th in the majors: "We needed to score more runs. We made it difficult on ourselves again (Saturday). I love the fight. We just have to do a better job of putting more runs at home, that's very simply it. Because the pitching was definitely good enough to win (Saturday).''

MISCELLANY: Shields recorded his major-league-leading sixth pickoff, of Cabrera off third base after a first-inning RBI triple. … DH Johnny Damon has reached base in his past 22 games, the second-longest streak for the Rays this season. … CF B.J. Upton ended a streak of six consecutive strikeouts when he grounded out to 3B Jack Hannahan to start the sixth. … The Long Haul Bombers, a group of softball home run hitters from Albertville, Minn., will participate in a home run derby before today's game, one of 13 stops on their tour this year.

Reliever J.P. Howell struggling in his return to Tampa Bay Rays 05/29/11 [Last modified: Sunday, May 29, 2011 1:20am]

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