ST. PETERSBURG — Monday was a night for first impressions.
It started with Jeremy Hellickson making what turned out to be a stellar major-league debut and ended with the Rays getting back to the top of the American League East.
Hellickson — as impressive for his dazzling pitching as his remarkable calm — delivered seven sterling innings as the Rays beat the Twins 4-2. And when the Yankees lost to the Blue Jays about 45 minutes later, the Rays — who led the division by six games on May 23 — had a share of first place for the first time since June 19, matching the Yankees at 66-39, with 57 games to play.
"It's wonderful to get back there," manager Joe Maddon said. "Last year we got so far behind and you battled really hard and you could never quite get there. The good start is a component in us being able to get back to this point now."
Hellickson certainly did his part, retiring the first 10 (with only one ball leaving the infield), allowing three hits, striking out six and showing a fastball clocked consistently at 92 mph along with a curveball and changeup. Though his reward, after the obligatory beer shower, was the planned and locked-in no-matter-what return to Triple-A Durham, with a likely return in September as a reliever if he's not needed before then.
"It was a lot of fun," Hellickson said.
He had help, of course, as the Rays improved to 7-1 on the homestand and snapped the Twins' eight-game winning streak. Matt Joyce had the biggest hit, a two-run, two-out double to cap a 12-pitch at-bat in the fifth. B.J. Upton had three hits and stole three of the Rays' five bases. And the bullpen continued its tremendous run (0.57 ERA on the homestand).
The Rays summoned Hellickson to give their other starters an extra day's rest, and to give the 23-year-old Iowan a chance to experience the major leagues for when he's later needed.
They expected him to handle it well, and Maddon said he didn't need long to realize that would be the case — the way he handled himself in the dugout, how he tugged the string of his glove with his teeth and walked out to the mound. "No panic, no rush, no hurry," Maddon said. "The makeup really stands out."
Truth be told, Hellickson was a bit nervous. He didn't sleep well Sunday night, and going out to warm up, with 14 friends and relatives among the 17,689 at the Trop (and dozens gathered to watch at the new Buffalo Wild Wings in Des Moines), was a bit trying.
But then it was time to get down to it. "I just tried to take it like any other game," Hellickson said. "And I went after that first-pitch strike."
He got that one, and 63 others among 107 pitches. He was the first AL pitcher since the Yankees' Chien-Ming Wang in 2005 to retire his first 10 hitters, and his three hits allowed matched the fewest by any debuting Ray.
The Rays who knew him from the minors or remembered him from his spring training debut against the Yankees weren't surprised a bit with how well he did.
"He never fails to impress," Joyce said. "He's the kid. He's going to be special."
By the end of the night, the Twins were impressed, too.
"I had no idea who the heck he was until my buddies who live around here were like, 'Good luck with that Hellickson,' " said Tampa native Denard Span. "I was like, 'Who the heck is that?' Everyone here was saying he's been dominating Triple A. We've seen why he was dominating."