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Tampa Bay Rays' J.P. Howell finds niche for Team USA on World Baseball Classic squad

MIAMI — Even in a Team USA clubhouse filled with All-Stars and future Hall of Famers, it didn't take long for colorful Rays reliever J.P. Howell — one of the more anonymous players — to become the center of attention.

The first day the team reported to Clearwater for World Baseball Classic workouts, veteran left-hander Ted Lilly told Howell he looked like pop singer Justin Timberlake.

Howell joked: "I dance like him, too."

Said Lilly: "Let me see something."

So in front of teammates, Howell did his "five-second" imitation. Were his moves better than the former 'N Sync star? "No way dude," Howell said. "Not even close."

"I try to lay low, and they make me dance the first day," he said, laughing. "Now I got labeled that I dance like Timberlake."

Howell, 25, has blended well with his Team USA brethren, soaking up a surreal experience that has included several adventures; there were his nights at the Four Seasons, the four dinners at a celebrity-magnet Italian restaurant in Toronto, and a scare during batting practice when he was hit in the left arm by a foul ball.

Though the beanball has limited his workload since, Howell said he feels fine and is having one of the best times of his life.

"You can't put it into words," he said. "It's been a trip, man."

Howell said that with his fiancee, Heather Hennessy, on the trip, he has been laying low most nights, watching movies and relaxing. But in Toronto, the two wined and dined four times at the plush Sotto-Sotto, a restaurant that's hosted Brad Pitt, Elton John, Michael Jordan and the International Film Festival.

Though Howell's celebrity sightings were only the actors' photos on the walls, he dabbled in wine but mostly stuck with his regular "Grey Goose (vodka) and cranny, that's what I do."

Howell stuck to what he did best on the mound, too, throwing a scoreless eighth inning in a tournament-opening 6-5 win over Canada at the Rogers Centre. "I didn't know it'd be that intense," Howell said. "I heard about it. But that was a shocker. It felt like a playoff game."

Howell was also shocked during Team USA batting practice later in the week, when he was hit by a Curtis Granderson foul ball. Pitching coach Marcel Lachemann said they're just being cautious with Howell ever since, saying the left-hander will be fine and that they want him to be 100 percent before he pitches again.

Granderson said he quickly ran over to Howell and apologized. "I was like, 'Ohhhh,' " Granderson said. "But he was laid-back; no retaliation."

Howell said he has been bruised but feels better every day. "I had no idea what it felt like to get beaned by a ball," he said. "I understand why (hitters) get pretty ticked off."

Howell always tries to get updates on the Rays, checking the Internet on his phone and texting teammates to "try to feel like I'm still there." Howell also communicates daily with head athletic trainer Ron Porterfield and is in touch with pitching coach Jim Hickey, adding he misses hanging with teammates during spring training.

"It's fun here," Howell said. "But I'm always thinking about the boys."

Howell said the Team USA clubhouse is filled with "clowns," fun characters that remind him of the Rays. And he has learned more about a few of his rivals turned teammates (Red Sox Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis, and Yankee Derek Jeter).

"I like the Red Sox boys a little more now that I met them," Howell said. "I think that will go away once the season starts, but I definitely didn't know they were pretty cool guys. When they're on your team, you like them. When you're not, you can't stand them."

His teammates have loved Howell's laid-back and sometimes off-the-wall personality, along with the surfer-style lingo coming from the Sacramento resident.

"He's funny — he says anything," Pedroia said. "I think guys appreciate that. He's honest, and he says what's on his mind. And you never really see that."

Said Granderson: "He likes to blend in, he's a chameleon. Whatever the situation is, he can adapt to it."

And teammates have adapted to Howell's vernacular, getting used to being called "dude."

"Always," outfielder Shane Victorino laughed. "That's what you get when you've got a Cali boy."

The "dude" label goes to everybody, from players to coaches, young or old. Just ask Lachemann, 67, who, in his decade previously working with the Angels, has worked with a lot of players from California.

"Oh yeah," Lachemann said. "I call him 'dude,' too."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Rays' J.P. Howell finds niche for Team USA on World Baseball Classic squad 03/15/09 [Last modified: Sunday, March 15, 2009 10:11pm]

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