BALTIMORE — Just when the Rays seemed on the verge of eliminating the biggest concern in their rotation, shifting Roberto Hernandez to the bullpen and plotting ways to get through until Matt Moore is healthy enough to return, they might have another problem.
Jeremy Hellickson faltered yet again Wednesday in a 4-2 loss to the Orioles, his velocity down and command off enough that manager Joe Maddon felt compelled to ask him after his 4⅓-inning mess of an outing if he was hurt.
Hellickson told Maddon what he repeated later to reporters: There was nothing wrong physically.
"I'm fine," he said. "Just struggling."
But Maddon said there was reason to be concerned, as Hellickson failed to get through five innings for the fourth time in his past five starts.
"I just think the ball out of the hand is not the same right now," Maddon said. "That's a baseball expression, but normally when you watch a pitcher pitch, you can really see the ball jump out of a pitcher's hand and you can see really good life out of it.
"It just hasn't — (Wednesday) was definitely not that. It was not the regular jump out of his hand. And with that you can see the velocity, a lot of 90s, and the location just wasn't that good, the curveball wasn't there."
The Rays dropped to 72-53 and back to a game behind the American League East-leading Red Sox as Tampa Bay takes today off, then Friday starts a 37-games-in-38-days march to the end of the season.
As poorly as Hellickson pitched, giving up massive homers to Adam Jones, a 451-foot rainbow to center ("Helium-filled," Maddon said), and the major league-leading 46th to Chris Davis, the Rays stayed close enough, thanks to relievers Cesar Ramos and Alex Torres, to make it interesting in the ninth.
But after getting the first two on, launching a sequence of pitching changes and pinch-hitting worthy of October, they didn't get anything out of it. The game ended when Kelly Johnson, running on his own and representing the tying run, was thrown out trying to steal second. "I would have bet the house I could steal that, even with a good throw," Johnson said.
The Rays were looking to sweep the series, but Hellickson got off to a rough start and never recovered, allowing the first three Orioles to get on and giving up two runs in the first. He allowed two more on the home runs before leaving in the fifth, having thrown 93 pitches.
"The way we played the last two days, it (stinks) to come out there in the first inning and be down 2-0 before the game even starts," Hellickson said. "I didn't give us a chance to win."
Hellickson has had a schizophrenic season, winning two of his first 11 starts with a 5.61 ERA, then winning eight of his next 10 with a 3.17 ERA, then going 0-4 in his past five with an 8.06 ERA.
He insists the problem is just poor pitching — "I don't think anything has been too good lately" — and is "absolutely" confident he can work through it and get back on his game.
Maddon, noting that Hellickson on Wednesday had the least amount of "snap" on his pitches in any of his starts, hopes that's all it is, or maybe fatigue.
"I don't know," he said. "I'm saying it's not injury — I hope it's not injury."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.