Howard's underdog story leads back home

Georgia native vowed: ''I don't want to go to [Truist Park] until I'm going to play'

May 23rd, 2021

had plenty of opportunities to go to Truist Park before this weekend’s series. The Georgia native had friends asking him to go to the Battery -- the shopping and entertainment district adjoined with the ballpark -- to get a drink, shop, throw axes.

But that’s not how Howard, who was raised less than an hour northwest of Atlanta in Cartersville, Ga., wanted to see Truist Park for the first time.

“I told them, 'I don't want to go to that stadium until I'm going to play in the stadium,’” Howard said.

It took a few days, but Howard made the homecoming he’d been looking forward to for a long time in Saturday’s 6-1 loss.

“I’ve heard about this ad nauseum for the past four days, so I’m really happy that we’re in Atlanta,” manager Derek Shelton said jokingly, “because when I walk around and talk to the relievers in the outfield all I’ve heard about is Sammy coming to Atlanta and how many people are going to be here.”

Howard began his outing by facing the kind of batter he’s been sent to face all season long -- a premier lefty -- in 2020 National League MVP Award winner Freddie Freeman. Freeman, who is associated with the Braves in a similar vein as Chipper Jones, Howard’s favorite player growing up, offered at the first two pitches, then buckled down in a nine-pitch at-bat to draw a walk.

Howard got a quick double play, then allowed a solo home run to Ozzie Albies -- one of 12 homers hit by the Braves off the Pirates in the first three games of this series.

But he finished the inning with a hallmark outcome for him this season: a whiff. Dansby Swanson swung through a fastball for strike three to end the seventh inning. Howard entered Saturday with the highest whiff rate in baseball (minimum 50 swings) on pitches that induced swings at 46.2 percent.

It hasn’t always been this easy for Howard, though.

Howard, 28, was so far behind the competition as a high schooler that his dad, Tom, would cold call colleges, trying to get them to take a look at what Howard was capable of.

“He wasn’t calling SEC and ACC. He was calling colleges he believed I had a chance to play at, but he wasn’t unrealistic,” Howard said. “He would call and be like, ‘Hey, I see you’ve got a camp in a month and a half. You got a spot so I can sign my son up?’

“And that’s how it all started.”

It led Howard to Georgia Southern University, about 3 1/2 hours from Atlanta, where he got an opportunity, but struggled with it out of the gate. He couldn’t get below a 5.00 ERA in each of his first two seasons, as the Eagles split him between starting work and relief work, nor did he put up lights-out numbers in the Cape Cod League, where he allowed 13 runs (12 earned) in 21 innings.

The Eagles moved Howard to the top of the rotation his junior year, and he dominated. He shoved against Georgia in the season opener, then he finished the season the way he knew he could: A complete-game, 10-K shutout of perennial postseason contender Florida State. He was drafted later that year in the third round of the Draft by the Rockies.

They converted him into a reliever at the Major League level in 2018 after four seasons as a starter in the Minors. It was a process that took some getting used to. But the biggest lesson came from Scott Oberg, who told Howard that he has to want the ball -- a lesson that seems a given for a Major League pitcher, but at Coors Field, where baseballs fly, it’s easier said than done.

“Until I felt that, I had no clue what he was talking about, how I was going to get to that point,” he said. “But now, I can honestly say I know what he means, and I won’t forget.”

That’s why Howard said before the series “I'm hoping for that matchup” against Freeman, knowing the kind of damage the slugger can do.

Now, after weathering a long, bumpy route and learning a lot about himself, Howard is looking like one of the most sure arms in the Pirates’ bullpen. Howard has never struck out guys at the clip he’s recorded in 2021. His 42.1 percent K rate was the sixth-highest mark in the National League entering Saturday among pitchers with 10 innings pitched.

And he doesn’t forget where he came from.

On Howard’s first day at Truist Park, he saw a kid in a Braves jersey lean over the wall above the Pirates bullpen and ask for a ball. Howard obliged, pointing to the boy and tossing the memento up. He remembers being in grade school, sitting at Turner Field, loving a game that didn’t always love him back, a game which required patience and persistence to get where he is.

“It's awesome how many times I've been counted out in my career from high school to college,” Howard said. “The hard times I went through and the grind to be here today, going out and playing in Georgia against the Braves and with all my family and friends here.

“I’ll probably be holding back some tears right before the game.”