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Jeremy Hellickson gives Rays (and fans) some hope

ST. PETERSBURG — We now welcome you back to the bizarre career of Rays pitcher Jeremy Hellickson.

Part drama and part mystery, Hellickson has become baseball's version of the show Lost. You tune in, but you honestly have no idea what you were watching.

With Hellickson, he remains an enigma wrapped in a conundrum. I'm still not exactly sure what I'm seeing and, more important, where it is all headed.

Is Hellickson still in the early stages of what will turn out to be a solid major-league career? Or is he in the late stages of a once-promising career that will prematurely end with the question: "What in the world happened to Jeremy Hellickson?"

I still have my doubts, only because of how awful he was at the tail end of last season. But Tuesday certainly gave the Rays reason for optimism.

After surgery on his right (throwing) elbow in the offseason, the 27-year-old made his season debut at the Trop against the Royals. And he was pretty good. Better than expected, actually.

"It just felt really good to get back on the mound in a big-league game," Hellickson said.

He didn't last all that long. Just 4⅓ innings. But he yielded only one run on six hits. He struck out two and showed a good curveball along with solid command of his 91 mph fastball. He threw 84 pitches and, if it wasn't his first outing, probably could have hung around for another inning or two.

Hellickson thought he was too inconsistent and was more relieved than pleased with his performance, but if this is the type of performance the Rays can expect from Hellickson (well, assuming he can go deeper into games), then the Rays just got themselves a very nice addition to the rotation.

Still, it's hard to get past what happened last season. He was so bad down the stretch that you seriously had to wonder if he still had the stuff to be a big-league pitcher. And because of how last season ended, you will excuse me if I wait a minute or two before declaring that Hellickson is back for good.

"It was kind of an awkward season for him," manager Joe Maddon said.

Remember, this is the guy who won 13 games in 2011 and was named American League rookie of the year. He followed that with a 10-win season in 2012, good enough that the Rays didn't fret over dealing away James Shields.

And things were going just fine for a good chunk of last season. Hellickson was 10-3 in late July, although Maddon admits that Hellickson benefited from strong run support. Still, 10-3.

Then something happened. Hellickson's season jumped the guardrail and went straight over the cliff. Starting on July 31, he won only two of his final nine decisions. He made it through six innings only once in his final 11 starts.

Out of necessity, Hellickson started Game 4 of last year's AL Division Series against the Red Sox. Maddon had so little confidence in him that he yanked Hellickson as soon as he loaded the bases in the second inning. As Hellickson walked off the mound that evening, you couldn't help but wonder where his disturbingly stalled career was headed.

Now here's the odd part. It's probably one of the rare moments when a team hoped there was something physically wrong with a pitcher. That was a better explanation than the alternative, which was their guy had simply lost it.

Hellickson did need surgery to clean some "loose bodies" in his elbow and, in a strange way, that was seen as good news by the Rays.

So now he's back, although Maddon stressed not to read too much too soon into Hellickson's return.

"Don't be judgmental," he said. "Let's just see what happens. Keep an open mind about this thing."

When Maddon said let's see what happens, he didn't mean just Tuesday night. He means over the upcoming weeks and even months.

Problem is, the Rays don't have a lot of time to be patient. A rough first half has left the Rays with little room for error in the second half if they hope to make a playoff run. They really can't afford to have an ineffective pitcher taking the mound every five days. They also really can't afford to burn through their bullpen every five days because their starting pitcher can't go past five innings.

Tuesday's performance is encouraging, but the Rays shouldn't forget that Hellickson still has options. If he struggles over his next few starts, returning him to the minors might be best, not only for the club but for Hellickson.

Meantime, because of the upcoming All-Star break and the way the schedule breaks down, the Rays can probably get away with using only four starters — David Price, Alex Cobb, Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi — for the next three weeks.

All in all, Tuesday could have been way worse. Hellickson could have been bombed all over the yard and the Rays would have been left to wonder where Hellickson's career is going.

For the moment, the signs are encouraging. Maybe. I think.

We need a few more episodes to know where this story is going.

Contact Tom Jones at tjones@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8544. He can and heard from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-AM 620.

Jeremy Hellickson gives Rays (and fans) some hope 07/08/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 8, 2014 11:52pm]
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