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Blue Jays' Howell lost and found in minors

Toronto Star logo Toronto Star 2017-07-16 Laura Armstrong - Staff Reporter

J.P. Howell © Rick Madonik J.P. Howell BUFFALO—It wasn’t just one or two things that J.P. Howell was struggling with when the left-handed reliever landed on the disabled list in early June, yet to return to the big leagues level six weeks later.

The velocity on his sinker — which he used more than 60 per cent of the time in 8 2/3 innings out of the ’pen for the Blue Jays this year — was in the low-80s rather than his career average of 87 miles per hour. His sharpness wasn’t there. He wasn’t locating his pitches. He was falling off the mound. There was shoulder tightness.

A consistent major-leaguer for a handful of years — his last DL stint heading into this season came in 2010, his last trip to the minors in 2011 — Howell had developed enough vices on the mound that they started to add up. The 34-year-old’s ERA ballooned to 8.31 ERA and he stopped getting the call from the bullpen.

“I felt lost,” Howell, who signed a one-year deal with Toronto in January, said this past week. “You just feel like you don’t know what you’re doing and you’ve done it your whole life. It’s just tough. It’s really hard.”

“I was throwing from my heel as opposed to my toe. I don’t know how that even started, you know what I mean? It’s like, ‘Why did that happen?’ You pitch through injuries over a 12-year career, you’re going to sometimes have bad habits and you need to channel them back. Coming here was the best thing for me.”

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Here is Buffalo, where Howell is on a rehab assignment with the Triple-A Bisons. It’s not the level he is accustomed to, but Howell knows the alternative could have been much worse.

“They’ve been as professional as you can be,” Howell said of the Blue Jays, his fourth big-league organization. “They could’ve just flat out told me to go home. They can do whatever they want. But they chose to put me here, set me up with a throwing program. They never showed disappointment. They were just excited about the process and results are coming. They don’t have to be this patient with me and they have been.”

Like any competitor, Howell would have preferred to battle through his struggles in the big leagues. But he wasn’t getting the innings he needed. Howell said he understood that the “trust factor was probably pretty low” when it came time for Blue Jays manager John Gibbons to consider putting him on the mound.

“It was obvious I couldn’t compete, I couldn’t get outs and it was a fail for the moment,” Howell said.

It was a low point for a reliever with 544 big-league appearances under his belt.

“A month ago, I was a little down,” he said. “You’ve got to let it happen. You’ve got to be down. You’ve got to go through that. You don’t want to ignore that. I let it happen and just worked as I was, and you get a lot of character and strength through it. I’ll take that any time I can get it.”

Howell said he felt ready to pitch immediately after joining the Bisons in early June, but followed the Blue Jays’ suggestion to step back and focus on mechanics away from the field. He has pitched 4 2/3 innings for the Bisons, allowing five hits, two runs and notching six strikeouts. He said his velocity is up and he’s feeling sharper, and locating pitches better than he has in a year.

Now, it’s a matter of doing it consistently.

The Blue Jays have 30 days from the pitcher’s first rehab outing to make a decision on his future. Howell hopes to stick around: “I haven’t been in the minors in a while so coming down here is kind of rejuvenating, see the grind that these guys are going through. You appreciate the little things a lot more.”


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