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J.P. Howell
Lefty crafting own brand of 'Rocket' fuel

By Corey Gottlieb / MLB.com

The year was 2005, and the outcome of the lopsided matchup seemed entirely predictable.

The Astros were facing the Royals in an Interleague game with their money man, Roger Clemens, on the hill. Clemens was in one of those can't-touch-the-Rocket kind of grooves, carrying a 1.64 ERA into that June 17 contest.

Across the diamond stood a skinny 22-year-old named J.P. Howell, who was making just his second start in the bigs. The book on Howell was that he out-finessed his opposition, mixing a slow knuckle-curve with a fastball that topped out in the mid-80s. Roger Clemens he certainly was not.

"I said, 'that's got to be tough on the kid,'" Astros backstop Brad Ausmus told MLB.com when he learned of the matchup. "It would be like Rocket having to pitch against Cy Young."

That said, there was some important history bridging the gap between the two hurlers.

Like Clemens, Howell had earned his stripes at the University of Texas. Incidentally, Howell had broken Clemens' two-year U.T. strikeout record, and, incidentally, he'd been named a finalist for the top college-pitching prize in 2004, which, incidentally, is named the Roger Clemens Award.

And there is more. As if their (Lone)stars weren't already aligned, the contest would mark the one-year anniversary of Howell's opening night performance in the College World Series. Clemens pitched the Longhorns to the title back in 1983 -- the same year Howell was born.

Perhaps, then, the matchup was not so cut and dry, but was instead the stage for a memorable passing of the baton.

Age: 25

Hometown:
Modesto, Calif.

College:
University of Texas

Teams:
KC, TB

Player bio »
Or perhaps Howell would get knocked around for four earned runs on five hits and three walks, and Clemens would fan six over six scoreless innings of four-hit ball. Such was the case in actuality, as life failed to imitate art in the Astros' 7-0 victory over the Royals that night. Still, the veteran ace was impressed by his opponent's rapid rise.

"To see him already in the big leagues, I tip my hat to that kid," Clemens told MLB.com after the game. "He's making a career out of this game already, and I'm very proud of him."

Taken out of context, Clemens' comments are prophetic: Howell has been forced to "make" a career out of what, for a time, was shaping up to be a forgettable stint in the Majors.

Dealt to Tampa Bay in June 2006, Howell struggled mightily in his first two seasons with the club, going a combined 2-9 with a 6.46 ERA over 93 1/3 innings. The lefty's lacking fastball clearly caught up to him, as his 1.67 WHIP in that span was evidence of his inability to shut down the opposition.

Howell's move to the bullpen prior to the start of '08 was fueled by two factors: the chance his stuff would play better in a situational role, and the likelihood of losing his job if he didn't try something different.

"I'd jump into that bullpen and try to help this team win any way I can," Howell said at the time.

And jump in he most certainly did. The southpaw proved a vital piece of the Rays' bullpen in 2008, going 6-1 with a 2.22 ERA while tying for tops among American League relievers in both innings pitched (89 1/3) and percentage of inherited runners scored (11.8). Dubbed the club's most valuable player by skipper Joe Maddon, Howell has found his niche in a role that bears little resemblance to the one he held as ace of the U.T. staff.

Nevertheless, one can be sure that Longhorns loyalists everywhere continue to take pride in his success.

And Roger Clemens, undoubtedly, is among them.

Corey Gottlieb 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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