Fresh up from Triple-A Durham, J.P. Howell started for the Devil Rays on Sunday and flat out got the job done.
The 24-year-old left-hander doesn't overpower hitters; he puts pitches in the right places, takes a little off his velocity, when needed, and he knows how to keep hitters off balance. And the 6-foot, 180-pound package of finesse brought a soothing calm to the Devil Rays' starting rotation, by leading a 5-1 win over the Royals in front of a crowd of 12,220 at Tropicana Field.
"That was pretty nice, wasn't it?" Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
Howell came to the Rays on June 20, 2006, in a trade that sent outfielder Joey Gathright and infielder Fernando Cortez to the Royals. He had two tours with the Rays over the final few months of the 2006 season. In the spring, Howell competed for, but lost, in the competition to claim the No. 5 spot in the rotation. Disheartened, Howell said it took a couple of weeks to get the hurt out of his head. Then he got down to business and worked on becoming a better pitcher, which transported him to a station where he actually felt thankful for having the opportunity to get his pitching in order down on the farm.
Howell made pitching look easy most of Sunday afternoon, allowing just one run on five hits, while striking out seven and walking none, in eight innings.
"I think the main thing with J.P. is that he didn't walk anybody," Royals manager Buddy Bell said. "We helped him out of a couple of situations, but overall, J.P. threw strikes. We know how he competes. It's not like we haven't seen him before."
Howell also showed an ability to elevate his performance when he escaped jams in the second and fourth innings.
"I was just trying to turn it up a notch," Howell said. "And before I was just trying to pitch at that high notch, but I found out it doesn't work that way. You've got to be able to conserve a little bit. ... When guys are on, you've got to attack a little bit stronger."
Howell spent close to three years in the Royals organization, so he still has friends on their roster. Sunday brought his first career start against his old team, but Howell didn't show any signs of nervousness.
"I had a lot of adrenaline at first, but I was able to control it," Howell said.
Royals starter Scott Elarton expected Howell to pitch well.
"I knew going in that whenever a guy faces his former team, they usually look good," Elarton said. "He pitched great. I'd seen him a little bit when he was with us, and it seemed like his pitches were a little bit sharper than they were a year ago. He had good command and mixed speeds well. He just pitched a great game."
Howell's effort could not have occurred at a better time, coming on the heels of Edwin Jackson's uninspiring start Saturday night, in which he gave up six runs in 3 1/3 innings.
"As our starting pitching goes, we're going to go," Maddon said. "... As the starters really settle in and get deeper into the games, that takes a lot off the bullpen. And when you're able to do that, the bullpen gets better. Performances like that are contagious. And we'll see, we've got [James Shields] going tomorrow. [We'll] see if we can keep it going."
B.J. Upton and Carl Crawford put together back-to-back doubles off Elarton in the third to put the Rays up 1-0. Delmon Young hit his seventh homer of the season on a 1-0 Elarton pitch to make it 2-0 Rays after four.
Jason LaRue cut the Rays' lead to 2-1 when he led off the fifth with a solo home run off a 1-1 pitch from Howell.
The Rays' offense never relaxed, and hung two more runs on the board in the sixth on Dioner Navarro's RBI triple and Brendan Harris' RBI single. Carlos Pena added his 11th home run of the season in the eighth to push the lead to 5-1.
Maddon said he would have considered leaving Howell in if he had a shutout going, but opted to take him out since he had thrown 100 pitches and did not have many high-pitch games at Durham. Al Reyes pitched the ninth -- even though it was not a save situation -- and retired the Royals in order to finish the game.
Howell wanted to go for the complete game.
"For sure, man, I thought I had it," Howell said. "But it was a smart move really, because it saved me for my next start. I don't know how many pitches I had, but I was starting to feel it. I could have got one more, but down the road, it was smart."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.