Former starter Howell thriving as closer

Ex-starter Howell thriving as closer

TORONTO -- While nobody has come right out and said it, J.P. Howell is the Rays' closer -- make no mistake about that fact.

On Saturday afternoon, the left-hander entered the game to cool off a hot situation in the 10th inning before pitching a scoreless 11th to earn the win in the Rays' 10-9 come-from-behind win over the Blue Jays.

Without being designated as such, Howell has taken over the closing role this season, earning 11 saves thus far. Pitching coach Jim Hickey said there are several reasons for Howell's success.

"First, he's got three really good pitches," Hickey said. "He's got really, really good command. And he's not afraid of the situation."

Hickey said Howell showed great competitiveness when he was a starter, but he's just fared better as a relief pitcher.

"I'm not positive why," Hickey said. "If we knew why, we would have probably changed him [to a reliever] sooner. Maybe it's not going through a lineup more than one time. A little bit of unfamiliarity is probably to his benefit, like anybody else's."

Starter James Shields said Howell is "one of the best relievers in the game, as far as his stuff."

"He doesn't throw very hard, but he attacks hitters like he throws 95 mph," Shields said. "He's got probably the best curveball of any lefty I've seen in the big leagues. He goes out and attacks the hitters like he's got the best stuff in the league. And you kind of have to have that mentality."

When Howell enters the game, Shields said the feeling in the dugout is "game over."

"There's no doubt about it," Shields said. "He's definitely proved that the last couple of years. What he's done out there the last couple of years is impressive."

Hickey highlighted the fact that finishing off a game takes a special person.

"When you're the last man standing and you're trying to get the 27th out, it's a lot different than the 21st or 22nd out," Hickey said. "But that's what makes a good closer. That really doesn't bother him. And I think that J.P., he's not oblivious to it, but I don't think it fazes him at all."

Howell loves the role.

"It's very fun," Howell said. "It's intense, so are the close ballgames, and for me, that makes it more fun."

Howell's mental approach to the job is all about trying to "shut off the outside."

"That's the main thing," Howell said. "All I worry about is the next pitch. That's all I try to think about. You can think of many things, but the most important is the very next pitch. And that's really what I try to focus on. It's tough to do sometimes, but if we can do that, I think it makes things a lot simpler."

Howell came to Spring Training in 2008 ready to fight for a job in the starting rotation, and he left camp as a reliever. Now he finds himself in the marquee spot in the Rays' bullpen.

"Never saw this coming, man," Howell said. "I don't think you can write this -- it was the luck of the draw, some hard work and a lot of good people around me. It's one of those things where I'm very fortunate to be in my position."

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