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A's Look for Help From Sore-Armed Jay Howell

August 23, 1987|JEFF SKLANSKY | Associated Press

OAKLAND — Jay Howell is not used to boos from the fans, barbs from the media and bone-chilling pain from his own pitches.

The two-time All-Star reliever for the Oakland Athletics is wallowing in defeat while his team makes a serious run for the pennant, fighting to keep his ailing right elbow from ruining his season.

With a 9.90 earned-run average in eight appearances since his last save on July 6, Howell says he is facing by far the toughest test of his five-year major-league career.

"I'd like to throw more often," said Howell, who sat in the bullpen for 12 days early this month without pitching. "I just can't throw. ... The more I throw, the more it gets irritated."

Sooner or later, Howell must undergo surgery to remove the bone chips floating in his pitching arm elbow and haunting him on the mound. The A's are hoping it's later.

If he has the operation before the end of the season, the team will be without its prime closer, a serious handicap as the A's race to catch up with American League West-leading Minnesota.

Howell led the league with 1.05 strikeouts per inning and posted a 2.69 ERA with the New York Yankees in 1984. The A's acquired him that winter in the Rickey Henderson deal and got immediate dividends when Howell saved 29 games in 36 opportunities and had a 2.85 ERA in 1985. He added a team-leading 16 saves last season.

But this season, with pain and swelling lurking behind his scarce pitching appearances, Howell is thinking about is future, not his past.

"I'm at the point where many times I think about getting it (the operation) done. It's not fun going out there when you're not 100 percent," he said.

He has remained in the game this long largely at the urging of Manager Tony La Russa, who says he still is counting on Howell to help bring Oakland a pennant.

"We could use him," said La Russa, understating the team's need for a stopper as it increasingly calls upon its bullpen to back up an unpredictable starting rotation.

"But in the end, whatever's best for him," La Russa said. "If anybody were to tell me it's a threat to his arm, I'd tell him to shut it down tomorrow."

That might be easier for Howell than it has become for him to shut down opposing teams.

He began the season badly, allowing five runs in 1 1-3 innings in his first two appearances. Then Howell took control, picking up 15 saves in 24 appearances through July 6, with a 3.19 ERA over 31 1-3 innings, including several tough clutch situations.

Howell earned an All-Star spot by coming on strong in June, allowing no runs and only four hits over eight appearances, with 11 strikeouts.

His troubles began with a degrading 4-3 loss to Milwaukee in which he gave up two runs in two-thirds of an inning, then continued in the All-Star Game, where he gave the National League its winning run after being booed by the Oakland Coliseum fans.

Since the All-Star break he has a 1-2 record and no saves.

But La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan insist they remain confident of Howell's ability. "All indications right now are that he's physically able to deal with the problems he has," Duncan said. "I think he is throwing the ball well."

"If you want to say his concentration might be disturbed because he's having some problems with his arm, I think there's a possibility of that."

Howell, however, angrily dismisses speculation that his problems may lie in his head as well as his arm.

"When I hear stuff like that, it bothers me because I'm the one getting an operation," he said. "It's garbage, and it's ticking me off."

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