ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Rays apparently knew what they were doing in giving Jeremy Hellickson some time off. And in keeping Wil Myers in the lineup.
Hellickson made an impressive return from his forced week-long respite, pitching solidly into the sixth. And Myers rewarded their faith in sticking with him through his first extended slump, hitting a pair of loud and lengthy home runs.
The result was a 3-1 win Wednesday over the Angels, the Rays' second straight after a five-game losing streak, on a steamy Southern California night. They improved to 77-61, remaining 5½ games behind the American League East-leading Red Sox and 2½ behind the wild-card-leading A's/Rangers while staying 2½ ahead of the Yankees, and 3½ of the Indians, for the second wild card.
Hellickson looked sharp and efficient, neither of which he had been over the previous month, allowing only four hits and a pair of walks.
"I did feel rested,'' Hellickson said. "I think my fastball had a little more life to it. ... I didn't really do too much different then when things weren't going too good. I just got out of a few tough jams and made pitches when I needed to.''
Manager Joe Maddon said he'd take five or six innings with a lead, and he meant it, pulling Hellickson after 71 pitches with one out in the sixth when he put the tying run on second with a Mike Trout double in a move that had a lot more to do with his mental well-being than physical performance. Alex Torres, the one-time Angels prospect acquired in the 2009 Scott Kazmir trade, stepped up in his first appearance in Anaheim to retire Josh Hamilton and, after hitting Kole Calhoun, Mark Trumbo to preserve the 1-0 lead.
"I did not want (Hellickson) to leave that game with any kind of bad thought, feeling, taste, whatever,'' Maddon said. That worked as Hellickson, who hadn't won since July 26, said he felt good about his performance, though he would like to go deeper,
"I was happy with the way things went tonight and I was happy to be back here,'' Hellickson said.
Hellickson has had a seismically up-and-down season, and when he lasted only 22/3 innings in Kansas City on Aug. 26 — his sixth straight start without a win and the fifth time he failed to get through at least five innings, with a 9.00 ERA — the Rays decided something had to be done. That after he won only two of his first 11 starts with a 5.61 ERA, then won eight of his next 10 with a 3.17 ERA.
The move seemed drastic at the time, optioning him to Class A Charlotte, but it was merely procedural, allowing him to get a mental and physical break — although he took only one day off, then resumed throwing at the empty Trop and watching the games from his couch — and the Rays to replace him with an extra bullpen arm.
Maddon said there were signs the move worked, specifically the extra couple miles an hour on Hellickson's fastball, which clocked in around 92.
"I thought there was more fastball and that comes from a more rested arm and rested body, so from that perspective I thought it looked pretty good,'' Maddon said. "I'd still like to see him get sharper. He threw some good changeups and maybe two good curveballs. If he can maintain the 91-92 range and get command of that hook back with that changeup, he'll pitch well.''
The Rays got their first run quickly on a second-inning homer by Myers over the centerfield fence. They got the next two on a longer and louder shot in the seventh that landed in the Rays bullpen, which is behind the Angels bullpen beyond the leftfield fence.
"It was hit pretty well,'' Myers said.
Maddon insisted he had seen signs over the past few days that Myers was working out of his extended 3-for-34 slump, and he apparently did, as Myers had a pair of doubles Tuesday, then the two home runs Wednesday off Angels ace Jered Weaver, the first runs he had driven in in two weeks.
"This is a young man that is not overwhelmed; he's going to have some bad moments and he's struggled a bit on the major-league level right now and he faced a very, very good kind of a Cy Young Award pitcher tonight and he was able to get him and that's pretty impressive,'' Maddon said.
Myers said he welcome the chance to work through his struggles.
"The only way to get through a slump is to keep hitting,'' he said. "You can't take games off. The only way to get the feel back is to keep playing. I thought it was big to be able to keep being in the lineup.''
Maddon said he just wanted to make sure Myers - whom he has taken to calling Ricky Bobby from the Talladega Nights movie - didn't get down on himself.
"The biggest concern I had was inexperience and youth more than the fact he was struggling not hitting the baseball,'' Maddon said. "How a young guy reacts to that is what you've got to keep an eye on.''
Besides, Maddon said, just like in sticking with closer Fernando Rodney when he has struggled, the Rays need Myers. "Look at the numbers on the board — we have nobody else capable of doing that other than him,'' Maddon said. "That's his 11th home run and his 42nd RBI and he's still hitting what, almost .290. We don't have that. And that's in a very limited time.''
Jake McGee allowed a seventh-inning homer, then Joel Peralta and Rodney, hitting 100 mph in his first outing in a week, finished for his 32nd save.
Hellickson's strong start gives the Rays reason to be encouraged as they have their top four starters all together and healthy for the first time since mid May.
"The pitching has been outstanding,'' Maddon said. "This is who we have to be.''
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.