PORT CHARLOTTE — The last pitch J.P. Howell threw in a Rays uniform didn't end well, a two-run single by Texas' Josh Hamilton that sealed the damning loss in Game 3 of the AL Division Series.
After throwing his first pitches of 2012 during Wednesday's bullpen session, Howell said the difference could best be described as "massive."
"Not the same person," Howell said. "I can actually repeat a pitch, and that's what I couldn't do all last year. I would throw two out of three good ones or two out of three bad ones depending on the day. It was never four out of five, and the key is to be about 80 percent."
The additional four-plus months since his May 2010 shoulder surgery is a big part, as well as an offseason workout program that made him stronger.
Howell, who rejoined the Rays last May but struggled much of the season (2-3, 6.16 ERA, 50 baserunners in 302/3 innings), said there's a different mentally, too.
"Last year, as long as it didn't hurt I was happy," Howell said. "So there's a mental turn, also — I can focus on what the job is and not recovery."
Manager Joe Maddon said he was struck by how focused Howell looked and how well he threw.
"The movement (on his pitches) was outstanding — that's the one thing we're really looking to get back out of him," he said.
FERNANDO-MANIA: Maddon said he was also impressed by RHP Fernando Rodney, a free-agent signee who figures to share in the high-leverage relief work.
"With him it's a command thing — once he gets ahead in the count he's devastating, he puts people away," Maddon said. "So my major concern with him is just to get to know him and hopefully be able to work on building his confidence. I think a confident Fernando Rodney pitches well and pitches well at the end of a baseball game."
IN ROTATION: Four potential members of the rotation — James Shields, David Price, Matt Moore and Wade Davis — threw bullpen sessions, Maddon noting "it's really fun to walk up and down the line."
Price, disappointed in his 12-13, 3.49 season, is pleased with his work so far. "It was very good," he said. "I felt like I've felt the last couple weeks. I'm taking it slow, I'll continue to work on stuff."
RULES OF ENGAGEMENT: Maddon said there may be some wiggle room in MLB's attempt to close a rule loophole he exploited last year by prohibiting managers from having a pitcher warm up "with no intention" of using him because a reliever isn't ready.
Maddon said he believes the change only applied to having position players warming up (Maddon used OF Sam Fuld during an interleague game in Milwaukee). He still could have the pitcher who finished a previous inning warm up before the next to buy time for a reliever he then brings in to face the first hitter.
"My understanding is that still remains intact, that particular concept," he said. "I've got to get a clarification on that. … I don't believe they're going to do away with that."
Also, he said, "intent is very difficult to ascertain."
Fuld found the whole thing — especially the suggestion it be called The Fuld Rule — amusing: "I just hope if it happens again I get to actually face a batter."
MISCELLANY: OF Jeff Salazar reported, making it 15 of the 21 position players who are in camp in advance of Sunday's first full-squad workout. … Executive VP Andrew Friedman and Maddon started their individual meetings with players where they lay out individual plans and goals. "Very beneficial," Maddon said. … Team president Matt Silverman and pitching coach Jim Hickey will be guests on the "Countdown to Opening Day" radio show tonight at 7 on 620-AM.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]