PORT CHARLOTTE — Rays reliever J.P. Howell is back to his usual happy-go-lucky self, rocking in his chair while serving as the clubhouse DJ, music blaring from a phone in an adjacent locker.
"Every year, I try to get that job," he said, smiling.
Work is finally fun again for Howell, 28, who has regained his health — and confidence — after a frustrating two-year stretch when he rehabbed from shoulder surgery. He said he was never right upon returning last season, a humbling experience in which he was extremely hard on himself.
"Last year was like shooting a gun without a scope," Howell said. "The ball was coming out of my hand, and I had no idea where it was going. It was like, I couldn't set anything up. This year, I feel like an actual pitcher, where I used to be.
"It's a whole new vibe. I have some weapons to fight with. Last year, it was truly unfair. Last year, it was an uneven playing field, like a hitter going up there with half the bat."
The Rays say Howell looks a lot more like he used to, when he was one of the league's most reliable and durable lefty relievers from 2008-09. There's more sink on his fastball. He has more depth on his changeup. He has been able to repeat his pitches, leading to more swing-and-misses from hitters.
"He's pitching with more confidence — that's the big thing," manager Joe Maddon said. "We've talked about this from day one, with J.P. Howell, to get his confidence back in the right direction, and when he does that you'll see him pitch effectively."
Tampa Bay fans might have lost confidence in Howell down the stretch last year, when he struggled mightily, including allowing a two-run single to Rangers slugger Josh Hamilton in Game 3 of the ALDS. There were some questions whether he'd be back. But the Rays bet on Howell, signing him to a one-year, $1.35 million deal, because of how tough he has been and how hard he worked to rehab.
"I'm looking for some really good things from him," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "And, of course, we need him to be good."
Hickey said with the major surgery Howell had in May 2010, to repair a labrum, they knew it would take significant time for him to recover and return to form. But Howell's patience was tested, and he beat himself up when he wasn't the same last summer.
He rejoined the team in May and did some good things, holding opponents to a .229 batting average before his last seven appearances, when hitters went 7-for-12. His ERA ballooned to 6.16, the highest since 2007, when he was a starter.
"It hurt, man. It was like the first time where I did everything I could and had a failure still," Howell said. "Usually, if I step it up, I can get it done, and last year the more I tried, the worst it went."
Howell lacked the command, and confidence. He would throw a good pitch, like his first curveball to Hamilton in Game 3. But he couldn't repeat them, like his second curveball to Hamilton, which was ripped to rightfield. There were some times when Howell's shoulder and arm worked together perfectly, but a lot of times they were "out of whack."
"It was a scary thing trying to pitch in a game with that," Howell said. "It was pretty much rolling the dice every day. That was no way to live but, at the time, I was just thankful to be in cleats again."
Howell is thankful to "feel like a professional" again, talking about game plans rather than rehab, and "couldn't be happier." Hickey said it's a product of all the hard work Howell put in to get back on track.
"It was a long, long process, and he did a lot of that on his own," Hickey said. "He was extremely aggressive with it and extremely diligent. He did everything he could do, plus, to come back better than ever, and I think we'll see the fruits of that labor. I hope so."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.