ST. PETERSBURG — After watching Rays right-hander Jeremy Hellickson complete seven shutout innings in a 7-0 win over the Indians on Sunday, manager Joe Maddon made a not-so-wild pitch for his 23-year-old control artist.
"He's definitely a rookie of the year candidate," Maddon said of Hellickson, who scattered three hits and retired 10 of the last 11 batters he faced. "His numbers are fantastic. I really believe as he gains more experience, you're going to see him get even better. He has not been as sharp with his fastball command as he can be, so once that arrives, look out."
Hellickson walked two and had six strikeouts to improve to 6-3 while extending his scoreless streak to 18 innings at Tropicana Field.
Meanwhile, Rays hitters pounded out their most runs this season in their domed home on 10 hits, including two more in the leadoff spot by suddenly sizzling Evan Longoria, who reached base four more times Sunday.
It was the second shutout performance by the Rays (28-24) in three games over the Indians (31-19), who were blanked by lefty ace David Price and company Friday after entering the weekend series with the best record in baseball.
"That's two shutouts in a three-game series against a very good baseball team," Maddon said. "We did everything well (Sunday). We pitched well, made some good plays on defense, very clutch hitting and ran the bases well."
Hellickson has benefited from a major-league best 7.98 run support average — not that he has needed it. In going 5-1 during his past six starts, he has a 1.83 ERA.
But every silver lining has its cloud, and if there is one thing that has sometimes eluded Hellickson early in games, it's his fastball command. He worked in and out of trouble in the first two innings against the Indians, coaxing a double play grounder from Travis Buck to escape a two-on, one-out jam in the first. Hellickson also struck out DH Grady Sizemore with two on and two out in the fourth.
"When he punched out Sizemore, he really came off the mound and yelled something into his glove, which I don't think I've ever seen him do," Maddon said. "It might have been, 'Darn. Dang it. What's wrong with you, Jeremy.' Something like that. But he came off and he was upset and I kind of like it."
In fact, there wasn't much not to like about Sunday's game for the Rays, other than a right ankle injury that forced first baseman Casey Kotchman to leave the game. Kotchman is day to day.
To say the Rays expected this kind of performance from Hellickson this season would not be a stretch. After he went 3-0 with a 2.05 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 261/3 innings as a starter following his callup in August, the Rays felt comfortable enough to trade pitcher Matt Garza to the Cubs.
On Sunday, in front of 23,898, Hellickson's devastating changeup, which he throws on any count, had Indians batters muttering to themselves on the way to the dugout and the Rays singing his praises.
"The fastball command was a little shaky early but the curveball and changeup kept me in the ballgame until the fastball came around the last few innings," Hellickson said.
So how good can Hellickson be?
"Oh, man," said catcher John Jaso, whose two-run homer in the fourth dropped Indians starter Justin Masterson to 1-6 against the Rays, "he can be as good as any pitcher in the big leagues, I think."