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Gary Shelton: Tampa Bay Rays' Jeremy Hellickson shows true potential in tough loss to Boston Red Sox

Kevin Youkilis, right, with David Ortiz, Adrian Gonzalez and Dustin Pedroia, spoils the Rays’ night.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Kevin Youkilis, right, with David Ortiz, Adrian Gonzalez and Dustin Pedroia, spoils the Rays’ night.

ST. PETERSBURG — In the years to come, this is how he will look.

He will stand on the mound, his cap tucked to his eyebrows, the brim's shadow falling across his face, and he will dare you to hit him. He will look toward the plate, his face passive and his fastball aggressive. He will seem in control, and he will make batters' hands sweat.

In the years to come, perhaps Jeremy Hellickson will not come in second on a night such as this.

Say what you will about Wednesday night and the not-insignificant detail that Hellickson lost this one 3-0. He made one mistake, perhaps two, and because of it, one of the finest efforts of a young career slipped away.

The Red Sox won because Josh Beckett was one pitch better. The Red Sox won because their batting order was one swing better.

In the middle of the defeat, however, Hellickson allowed Rays fans a glimpse into the future.

Basically, it looks a lot like Hellickson.

In a career that has started fast enough to leave skid marks, this may have been Hellickson's finest performance. This time he pitched the way he will have to pitch if he is to reach his potential. This time he brought a little heat.

"In my mind's eye, that's what he's supposed to be," Rays manager Joe Maddon was saying after the game. "A well-located fastball, a changeup off of that, and then curve mixed in."

Over his first 16 starts, Hellickson has been impressive enough. He entered the game with an 11-4 major-league record, and already he has looked poised beyond his years and precise beyond his team's expectations. He has pitched like a veteran, but along the way he has treated his change and his curve as if they were equal partners.

This time Maddon said he wanted to see Hellickson pitch off his fastball. If Hellickson really is to grow as a pitcher, Maddon said before the game, he wanted to see him throw his fastball for strikes whenever he needed. Granted, that can be a dodgy proposition against a lineup as potent as Boston's, but if Hellickson is going to get big-league hitters out, he can't always sneak up on them.

For six innings, Hellickson was impressive. Out of every five pitches, four were fastballs, and most of them made the Red Sox's bats look as small as those of the Rays looked against Beckett. Through six innings, both pitchers had one-hit shutouts.

"He was rolling along," Boston's Dustin Pedroia said. "He's going to be very good for a very long time."

Yeah, you can quibble with the seventh inning if you want, when the Red Sox got to Hellickson for three runs. The truth of it is that that was as much about bad luck as it was bad pitching, however. Pedroia's triple was beyond the glove of rightfielder Matt Joyce, who felt he was "about an inch away" from making a catch. After an intentional walk, Hellickson's fastball to Kevin Youkilis was a few inches high in the strike zone, and Youkilis hit a high fly ball that barely cleared the fence.

"One bad pitch," Hellickson said. "It (stinks) right now, but I'll move on."

The moral here? There isn't much margin for error in the major leagues.

Especially when a pitcher has the run support of the Rays.

It's hard to hammer the Rays' hitters for this one, however. This isn't the first time Beckett has made an opponent look overmatched. Still, one hit? And an infield pool-cue hit at that? Except for that single, by Reid Brignac in the third, Beckett would have had a perfect game.

Ah, doesn't it feel like this happens to the Rays' lineup an unsettling amount of times? Last year it seemed to be James Shields who kept getting a lack of run support. This time it was Hellickson. That's the constant pressure on the Rays' rotation; it's hard to win a lot of games with zero runs.

"You can't criticize what he did tonight," Maddon said. "He just turned 24, and he went toe-to-toe, heavy gloves against Beckett and did not flinch. He was fantastic. Everything he did tonight was of championship caliber.

"His takeaway from this might be just 'don't give up a home run to Youkilis.' "

In the years to come, perhaps Hellickson learns to keep the ball down. Perhaps he doesn't make the one mistake, maybe two.

"As he matures, I think his curveball will mature," Maddon said. "I like his poise. I like the way he handles himself. All of that makes you feel great for his future."

His immediate past? Yeah, a good night turned bad.

Even in defeat, however, it was hard not to feel better about the nights to come.

Gary Shelton: Tampa Bay Rays' Jeremy Hellickson shows true potential in tough loss to Boston Red Sox 06/16/11 [Last modified: Thursday, June 16, 2011 12:58am]

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