ST. PETERSBURG — If any opponent is a believer in Rays right-hander Jeremy Hellickson's rookie of the year candidacy, it's likely the Orioles.
Hellickson has been at his best against Baltimore this season, and that included Sunday, when he breezed through a complete game four-hitter in an 8-1 win in front of 15,790 at Tropicana Field, helping the Rays pull within eight games of the wild card-leading Red Sox.
Hellickson needed just 97 pitches in his second complete game, with the other one coming against — you guessed it — the Orioles on May 14. He's 3-0 with a 0.72 ERA in three home starts against Baltimore this season.
"We shouldn't feel like we're the only team that he's picking on," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "He's pitched well against a lot of people."
That's why manager Joe Maddon believes Hellickson (12-10), who leads all qualifying American League rookies in ERA (2.90) and innings (1641/3), deserves to be "heavily" considered for the rookie honor, noting he has done so in the rigors of the AL East and with little run support. In nine of Hellickson's 10 losses, the Rays scored one run or none while he was on the mound.
"A little bit of luck, he's got 15 wins, and then he's probably the lock — he's the shoo-in at that point just because of that," Maddon said. "I know there are several guys having good years, but to match that doing it here the way he's done it, I just think it speaks a little more loudly."
The soft-spoken Hellickson, 24, said he had command of all his pitches, attacking hitters early in the count. Though he tied a season low with one strikeout, he walked none for just the second time in his career.
Hellickson regretted just one "bad" changeup to Adam Jones in the fifth, which resulted in a solo homer that broke up his no-hitter. He otherwise cruised in throwing just 76 pitches through eight innings.
"He kept us mixed up all day," Orioles third baseman Mark Reynolds said.
And the Rays (76-63) offense finally backed Hellickson up. Sean Rodriguez ripped a two-out, two-run homer in the second. Matt Joyce added a sacrifice fly and solo homer. But Maddon said the biggest hit came off the bat of shortstop Reid Brignac, who cleared the bases with a two-out double in the third to make it 6-0.
Brignac fell behind 0-and-2 to veteran Jeremy Guthrie but battled and said he finally "found a little more barrel," hitting the ball over Jones, who was playing in shallow centerfield. It was just the fourth extra-base hit of the season for Brignac, who lost his first starting job due to offensive struggles but equaled his RBI total from his previous 41 home games (three) with one swing.
Brignac said his mid-July demotion to Triple-A Durham helped him grow up a little bit, and he has now hit safely in four of his past five starts. "It does feel good to have some successful games and be productive," he said.
With the Rays likely to limit Hellickson's innings to around 180, he may have only a few starts left to make his case for rookie of the year. But to some, he needs to convince no one.
"We love what we have in the kid," Johnny Damon said. "He's going to be a star in this league, as long as we can score him some runs."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.