J.P. Howell: A nice fit in Rays bullpen

Rays' southpaw JP Howell was a starter his entire professional career but may have finally found a home in the majors in the bullpen. Ted Fleming of Rays Digest reports from Tropicana Field.

ST. PETERSBURG - When the Rays traded outfielder Joey Gathright to the Royals for J.P. Howell, it was thought at the time he would fit into the rotation behind Scott Kazmir as the #2.

That was then, this is now.

The lefty has seen his share of time on the Durham shuttle bouncing between the team's AAA affiliate and the majors as he struggled with inconsistency.

In his on-again, off-again big league career the Californian is but 5-15 with a bloated 6.34 ERA entering 2008 only it appears he has found a home in of all places, the bullpen.

"If you've noticed the gun readings there are a lot of 85's and 86's," said manager Joe Maddon. "We've talked with him about this the last couple of years as a starter. We were trying to get him to that point. He is only going to pitch two or three innings now and he can go out there with even a different physical attitude. I'm seeing better velocity and with that a better break on his breaking ball also. They're getting bad swings on him. He's got a good change."

Maddon acknowledged the mental adjustment the 24-year old has to make with this kind of switch, especially when 73 of his 75 professional appearances have been as a starter.

"He knows that he's only going to be out there a limited amount of time and he's become more aggressive with his fastball, which I like," Maddon continued. "I think that's why you are seeing so much success. He also has such good makeup and he's carried that over from spring training."

Apparently this is not a short term deal until a spot in the rotation opens. There are just too many young arms waiting in the wings for that to happen. Maddon thinks he has a career in the pen being a long guy out when things are going badly and eventually being a functional late inning reliever.

"He can get out an A-Rod (Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees) in a tough situation or a good lefty. He's kind of a valuable guy out there right now."

Howell picked up his first career save Thursday and although he has no record, he is pitching to a 2.70 ERA while lefties are hitting just .235. Perhaps the confidence Maddon has is based on this fact: he has retired the first batter in each of his outings this far.


GOOD TO GO: He may not return to first base until the Toronto series at the Disney Wide World of Sports Complex next Tuesday but Carlos Pena was feeling well enough to be in the lineup Saturday as the designated hitter.

"I spoke to him around 3:30 and he told me he was good to go," said Maddon. "We don't want him running extra hard and see where it takes us tomorrow. He got in a lot of hitting yesterday in the cage and would have been able to pinch-hit last night. We didn't need him so we'll just see how it plays out."

SUNDAY SUNDAY: The Rays claimed 1B Dan Johnson off waivers from the Athletics yesterday and at the time the team was not sure when he was going to report, however, Maddon said he is expected to be in St. Petersburg Sunday. It is unknown if he will arrive in time to be on the bench by game time. When he arrives, Johnson will be the 32nd player to suit up for the rays this season, which is most in the majors.

M.A.S.H.: Matt Garza is will have his first rehab start Sunday with Vero Beach ..... Dioner Navarro will DH tonight for the same club as the Rays are trying to get him as many at-bats as possible ..... At this time, Scott Kazmir did some throwing over at Vero earlier today before driving back to St. Petersburg. He is on target for an early May return ..... Cliff Floyd stopped by the Rays' office and Joe Maddon said he was "bouncing around" and the swelling on his surgically repaired knee is down and is coming along fine ..... At one point or another the Rays have had ten players already visit the disabled list, tops in the majors. So far those players have combined for 131 games missed.

CHISOX KNOCKS: Although highly disputed, the home run by Jim Thome that hit the catwalk was estimated to be 418-feet. Many, including White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen and Rays manager Joe Maddon think it was the hardest hit ball they have seen in this building, some actually thinking it would have gone well over 500-feet had it not hit anything. Guillen went as far as saying it would have hit high on the back wall had nothing stopped its flight ..... Entering Saturday's contest the Sox have now won 10 of their last 15 and five of seven ..... Pitching has also sparkled as they have a 1.28 ERA over the last seven contests lowering the team average from 5.35 to 3.54 ..... Thome and Joe Crede went back-to-back with long balls last night, the second time Chicago has done that this season. The last time it was Carlos Quentin and Crede on April 17 in Baltimore.

MINOR MATTERS (Organizational Record: 28-33, .460)
DURHAM (6-10): The Durham Bulls struck early and often Friday at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, salvaging the last game of the four-game series against the Columbus Clippers with a 7-3 win.

Fernando Perez came up big in two Bulls rallies, tripling to lead off the game and scoring on a Reid Brignac sacrifice fly. He later doubled in Durham's three-run third, ending up 3-for-5 with two runs scored and a stolen base. Brignac drove in three with a 2-for-4 evening and Chris Richard was 3-for-5 with a run scored and one batted in. John Rodriguez and Jeff Bannon added solo home runs to the Bulls' onslaught.

The Bulls got a boost from their starter, Mitch Talbot (1-2, 7.79), who pitched six strong innings, allowing hour hits, three runs (one earned) and a walk, striking out five Clippers on the way to his first win on the year. Scott Munter allowed just a hit in one inning of relief, and Grant Balfour earned his second save in two innings of work. Jason Bergmann took the loss, allowing six hits and four runs in his first three Triple-A innings since being sent down by the Washington Nationals earlier this month. (Matt DeMargel)

MONTGOMERY (7-8): The Montgomery Biscuits finished their longest road trip of the year Friday night by defeating the Tennessee Smokies, 8-5, on getaway day at Smokies Park.

It was the Biscuits' third straight win and it brought their record on the trip to an even 5-5.

Sergio Pedroza's fifth-inning grand slam helped Montgomery to victory, but it wasn't enough in and of itself. The Biscuits used the full strength of their 13 hits and took advantage of some good relief pitching.

Pedroza's slam came with none out and plated Rashad Eldridge, John Jaso and Chris Nowak. Eldridge had singled and the other two hitters walked, forcing Tennessee starter Tanner Watson from the game. Reliever Chris Shaver gave up the homer, the 13th grand slam in Biscuits history. It provided Montgomery with a 5-2 lead but it was not the final nail in the Smokies' coffin.

Tennessee scored three runs to even it in the bottom of the fifth against tiring starter Mike Wlodarczyk (4 1/3 IP, 9 H, 5 ER, 3 BB, 4 K) and reliever Wade Townsend. After a run-scoring double by Tennessee shortstop Joe Simokaitis, Robinson Chirinos bounced an infield single, driving Wlodarczyk from the game. Jake Muyco folled against Townsend with a 40-foot check-swing single, and Matt Camp walked with the bases loaded. The equalizer scored on a fielder's choice by Issmael Salas. Townsend pitched another scoreless inning before checking out and earned his first win of the year.

Montgomery got the game winners in the seventh, as Gaby Martinez singled through a drawn-in infield to score Jaso and Nowak. Another run scored on a Salas error.

Until Pedroza's slam, the Smokies held the lead for a brief period.

Tyler Colvin and Matt Craig led off the third inning with back-to-back homers. (Jim Tocco)

VERO BEACH (7-8): Scott Kazmir made his first rehab start and allowed just one unearned run in three innings. Dioner Navarro also saw action and was 0-1 with a pair of walks. The Devil Rays won the game 8-5 for their second straight over the St. Lucie Mets. John Matulia was 3-4 with a triple and three runs scored.

COLUMBUS (8-7): It's four wins in a row for the Biscuits after they knocked off the RiverDogs 6-3. Jason Ragan got the win, his third, with seven innings of one-run ball. Seth Dhaenens was 3-4 with a double and run scored.

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