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Howell takes liking to relief role

Howell takes liking to relief role

NEW YORK -- Rays lefty J.P. Howell made his season debut on Sunday against the Yankees and worked the final three innings, allowing no runs and just one baserunner.

The outing was Howell's first career Major League relief appearance, and it left Rays manager Joe Maddon talking about better opportunities in the future for the crafty left-hander.

"Right now, he's in this longer situation," Maddon said. "As he moves along, he could pitch later in the game -- and against righties and lefties, that's what I see.

"He likes the opportunity of getting a chance to play every day he shows up. ... He's got the makeup to come out of the bullpen. He likes the challenge. He could be pretty good at this."

Howell, 24, is 2-9 in 18 career starts with the Rays since being acquired from the Royals in a trade on June 20, 2006. He likes the new role and said he feels comfortable occupying it.

"I just watched the whole game, and it was like I was already in the flow [upon entering the game]," Howell said. "It's not like I'm trying to find the flow. I kind of already understand the flow."

Howell won over Maddon during Spring Training.

"He did the same thing during the spring -- better velocity, better breaking ball, more aggressive in the strike zone," Maddon said. "He knows he's only going to go a couple of innings, and he's a different guy -- a different animal. It did not surprise me what he did [on Sunday]. I really kind of expected him to pitch well [Sunday]."

Howell's situation could become interesting once ace Scott Kazmir returns, as either Edwin Jackson or Jason Hammel will be bumped from the starting rotation. Jackson and Hammel are both out of options, while Howell is not. If Howell continues to do well, the Rays will be faced with a tough choice regarding what to do -- move the bumped starter to the bullpen and send Howell to Triple-A Durham, make a trade or designate either Jackson or Hammel (based on which one is not in the rotation) and run the risk of another team claiming him.

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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