SAN FRANCISCO – Dodgers reliever J.P. Howell's first trip to AT&T Park as an active major leaguer last weekend gave him a chance to catch up with a former teammate – Giants media relations staffer Liam Connolly. They played together at Jesuit High School when Howell, a 2001 graduate, was a Sacramento-area prep standout.
As it happened, they chatted Friday, the day after many on the Giants' staff received their 2012 World Series rings. Those who were also around in 2010, such as Connolly, can now wear a championship ring on each hand.
"He has more than me," Howell said with a grin. "He has two now, man. It hurts."
It was with this good-natured manner that Howell talked for 15 minutes before the Giants and Dodgers played Saturday evening, a game in which the left-hander pitched 2 2/3 innings and allowed one run to lower his ERA to 4.15 in 13 games this season.
Things are good – the Dodgers' losing record notwithstanding. For the first time since he transferred from USC to Texas after his freshman year, the 30-year-old Howell is back living in California, which is "awesome, man."
"There's nothing like being in your home state," he said.
The Dodgers' $200 million-plus clubhouse, where he landed over the winter on a one-year deal after spending the last seven seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays, is refreshingly laid-back, he said. And he's still throwing baseballs for a living three years after surgery to repair torn shoulder cartilage, which had him wondering during his yearlong rehabilitation whether he would make it back.
"He's just a breath of fresh air for our team," said Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis, "just his positiveness and the energy he brings to the field every day."
Howell was one of the Rays' most reliable relievers in 2008 and 2009, recording 17 saves in 2009. Toward the end of that season, though, the pain he had been pitching with for years in his left shoulder became too much. Howell, who said his shoulder damage first showed up on an MRI when he was a first-round draft pick by the Kansas City Royals in 2004, underwent surgery in May 2010.
He briefly returned to the Rays' clubhouse right after the surgery but found it "weird. Everyone would be all happy, and then they'd see you and they'd go, 'Oh, you all right?' It was like, 'Hey, carry on, you know? You don't have to change.' It (stunk)."
So Howell moved to Birmingham, Ala., and set about rehabbing his shoulder, following the program New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees had used to come back from similar surgery on his throwing shoulder in 2006. It was, Howell said, "a grind."
"Every night, you put your head on the pillow, you're going, 'Man, it doesn't feel right,' " he said. "You're waiting for it to feel decent, you just wait and wait, keep working and working. And one day it did."
Howell remembers the day. He said it was right after Christmas, freezing in Birmingham, as he played catch from 90 feet and suddenly "felt I could do more." He wanted to back it up to 120 feet but was advised otherwise.
"I remember saying, 'It's going to be all good,' " he said.
Howell returned to a big-league mound with the Rays on May 20, 2011, nearly a year to the day after his surgery. He did not pitch particularly well that season – his ERA was 6.16 – but in 2012, he posted a 3.04 ERA in 55 games.
"Stuff-wise it's better, I feel," Howell said. "I pitched with all that pain for so long, my stuff was pretty terrible. But I could compete, and I could get the ball to where I wanted.
"Now sometimes I feel so good I overthrow it, or I'm a little more wild. But my stuff's better, so I'll take it. I'll take the trade."
In talks last winter with the Dodgers and Washington Nationals, Howell signed in January with Los Angeles, where he's close to home and familiar with some of the faces, such as former teammates Carl Crawford (Tampa Bay) and Zack Greinke (Kansas City). He said his role offers fewer high-leverage innings than his late-game job in Tampa Bay, but it's "cool, man, because I can help save other guys and pitch in games we come back to win."
"He's never intimidated by any situation that he comes into," Ellis said. "You can count on him to know the hitters he's going to face – he's always well-prepared – and he executes well."
Howell made his lone outing of the Giants series Saturday, when the Giants won on a 10th-inning walk-off home run. It prolonged a trying start to the season for the Dodgers, who have been slammed by injuries and left San Francisco four games under .500.
"We've got so much talent, there's a lot of great guys in this clubhouse, that the sky's the limit for us this year," Howell said. "We're not happy, looking around right now.
"But," he added optimistically, "that could change in the matter of a week."