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May 21—Eevn though Sam Howard grew up an Atlanta Braves fan, he intentionally avoided going to Truist Park until this weekend. Howard even declined invites for social gatherings at The Battery, the stadium’s surrounding entertainment scene.

After enduring ups and downs of a baseball career that began at Cartersville High School — located less than 40 miles north of Truist Park — the Pittsburgh Pirates left-handed reliever had designs on making his first visit to the Braves’ ballpark an unforgettable one.

“I said, ‘I don’t want to go to that stadium until I’m going to play in the stadium.’ So, when I rolled up on the bus, this was the first time I’ve ever been here,” Howard said Thursday, before the Pirates played the Braves in the first of a four-game series.

“It’s awesome, how many times I’ve been counted out in my career from high school to college, 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. Will probably be holding back some tears right before the game.”

Howard is hoping for a triumphant return, especially after establishing himself as a reliable reliever for the Pirates since being claimed off waivers from the Colorado Rockies in October 2019. Howard started last season at the alternate training site in Altoona before becoming their top left-handed option out of the bullpen.

The 6-foot-4, 195-pound lefty (2-2, 3.14 ERA) has stranded all 10 inherited runners this season, and has allowed one hit against 14 batters while striking out 10 in 4 1/3 innings in May. He’s only been scored upon two times in his last 16 appearances, and is holding left-handed hitters to an .087 (2 for 23) batting average.

“I’m feeling pretty good delivery-wise and just the big thing, the mental part, just going right at every hitter and remembering how hard it is to hit and trying to stay on the offensive side on the mound,” Howard said. “I hope to be able to come in here and we take the lead in a game and to be able to come in in a big situation and face the heart of their lineup and be able to do it in front of everybody. That’s what I like to do.”

That’s what Howard did Wednesday at St. Louis, when he faced the top of the Cardinals’ order after four days’ rest. After giving up a leadoff walk to Tommy Edman, Howard struck out Dylan Carlson on three pitches. Howard then whiffed All-Stars Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenao, his friend and former teammate with the Rockies.

“He walked Edman, then came back and really executed the fastball and threw some really good sliders,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “To go through Goldschmidt and Arenado, that’s tough for a lefty and he really executed pitches. That was big for us. He gave us a chance to stay in the game.”

Howard’s takeaway was to trust his slider and four-seam fastball, which he mixes to a 53/47 split this season after relying more heavily upon the slider (62.3%) last year. Striking out Goldschmidt and Arenado in succession showed Howard that he can attack any hitter, and his celebratory fist pump was a sign of that confidence.

“He’s one of the greatest players in the game, so not trying to show him up or anything like that,” Howard said of Arenado, “it’s just, ‘Hey, if you can get a guy out like him’ — for me it’s an awesome feeling.”

What made it more awesome is that the same Cardinals did damage against Howard in a 12-5 win over the Pirates on May 1 at PNC Park.

Where Howard ended the sixth by striking out Jack Flaherty and getting out Edman on a pop fly, he was pulled after walking Carlson and giving up a Goldschmidt single only to see Arenado double off Duane Underwood Jr. to tag Howard with a pair of earned runs.

So, his homecoming comes at a perfect time for Howard.

“The confidence has just built from last year to this year,” Howard said, “and, as long as I slow things down and don’t do too much, I’m in a really good spot.”

Right where he belongs.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at or via Twitter .