ST. PETERSBURG — Rays reliever J.P. Howell and Royals outfielder Joey Gathright offered the same word to sum up their feelings before facing their former teams Saturday night:
Equally as eerie was how Howell and Gathright — involved in a Rays-Royals swap in June 2006 — were central characters in a key eighth-inning situation.
Howell, who has transformed from a Royals potential starter to the Rays bullpen MVP, relieved Andy Sonnanstine in the eighth and walked Gathright to open the inning.
Gathright, whose speed once made him one of the Rays' top prospects, moved to second on a wild pitch and stole third. But it was Howell who stole the show, striking out the side to deliver another clutch hold.
Howell, 25, said he was bitter when the Royals traded him, but he now feels the fresh start could have been a blessing in disguise.
"For me, it definitely worked out," Howell said. "I look at it and think I'm so lucky to be here. … I almost consider Tampa my first organization, to be honest, over KC — even though KC is a great organization, the timing wasn't for me, and it wasn't a good mix."
Howell, a former University of Texas star, started just 15 games for the Royals in a 2005 stint (3-5, 6.19). The southpaw struggled last year with the Rays (1-6, 7.59), with his only win coming in an eight-inning gem against the Royals. But even with the growing pains, Howell (6-0, 2.91) said, he has always felt more comfortable in Tampa Bay.
"It was kind of a tough situation over there, we were losing a lot, there was a lot of negativity going on," Howell said of Kansas City. "I kind of look over there, I don't cringe, but I remember how tough that was."
Gathright, 27, was considered the Rays' third-best prospect behind Scott Kazmir and Delmon Young in 2004. But after 155 games with the Rays over three seasons, he was optioned to Triple-A Durham before getting traded with INF Fernando Cortez. With the Royals, he has become an everyday player and was ninth in the AL in stolen bases entering Saturday's game.
"It's a good situation — I'm happy where I'm at, and I know J.P. is happy here," Gathright said. "I can't complain."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.