Howell finding his top form

Howell finding his top form

ST. PETERSBURG -- Quietly, J.P. Howell has been rounding back into the form that made him one of the best relievers in baseball last season.

Two more hitless innings in Tampa Bay's 4-1 loss to Oakland on Tuesday night gave him nine consecutive innings pitched without allowing a run, lowering his ERA from 4.35 to its current 2.33.

In that span, he has struck out nine and walked only one, picking up two holds and one save.

"Getting in a groove," the left-hander from California said Wednesday afternoon. "Just trying to get a pace for this thing and make a push."

Howell entered Tuesday's game with runners on first and second in a scoreless tie in the ninth inning, and he struck out Matt Holliday and got Jason Giambi to ground out to second to end the inning.

He then retired the lineup in order in the top of the 10th. The Rays ended up losing in 11 innings.

Rays manager Joe Maddon thought Howell looked as good as he has all season.

"His velocity was consistently 87-88 [mph], good hard breaking ball and the changeup off of that," Maddon said. "I know he's going to pitch at a very high level. He's very tough when he starts hitting those numbers."

It's certainly a good sign, after Howell went 0-2 with a blown save in April, and allowed runs in back-to-back outings vs. New York and Boston in early May.

"It was just early," Howell said. "Like everyone else, you're just hit or miss at times."

Howell, a member of Team USA in this year's World Baseball Classic, led the Major Leagues in relief innings last year (89 1/3) and was tied for the American League lead among relievers with 92 strikeouts.

So far this year, he has struck out 21 in 19 1/3 innings. And it looks like he's only now starting to find his true groove.

"I think things are starting to fall in place a little bit more," Howell said. "When you first start out, you're still trying to find it, and as time goes, it's just like anything, it just gets more attuned and it works out better."

Zach Schonbrun is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.