OAKLAND, Calif. — As manager Joe Maddon spoke of Wednesday's series finale in must-win terms, the recent trending certainly wasn't good, the Rays losing five of their past six and not looking good in doing so, and the matchup far from favorable, with struggling Jeremy Hellickson facing sizzling Sonny Gray.
"The classic reverse lock," Maddon joked, using betting parlance in concocting a reason for optimism.
But by the end of the afternoon, the Rays, and Hellickson, were the unexpected big winners, beating the baseball-best A's, and Gray, 7-3.
The victory was important by itself. It prevented a sweep and stopped a further slide as the Rays improved to 55-59 and remained 51/2 games back in the race for the second American League wild card and, for what it's worth, moved within 91/2 of the Orioles in the AL East.
And there was a resuscitation of the sputtering offense, with three RBIs from Kevin Kiermaier and an actual big hit with the bases loaded by Desmond Jennings, as the Rays scored seven to chase Gray — who had allowed seven runs total in his past six starts — in the fifth.
But the most significant development by far was the outstanding performance by Hellickson, who not only won for the first time in four starts since coming off the disabled list but looked quite sharp in doing so, allowing one run and two hits over a season-high seven innings.
"That looked like the rookie of the year Hellickson right there," Maddon said.
It certainly looked better than the Hellickson of the past year. He went 2-7, 7.15 in the last half of 2013, had arthroscopic elbow surgery in January, rejoined the Rays in July and didn't get through five innings in his first three starts.
What was different Wednesday?
Just about everything.
His fastball was crisper, which made his changeup more effective. He worked more quickly. And, perhaps most importantly, he was aggressive from the start, challenging hitters rather than nibbling.
Catcher Jose Molina noticed it in the eight-pitch first inning, when Hellickson came inside to a couple of the hitters with his fastball. The telling point to Maddon was getting Josh Donaldson to swing and miss at a changeup.
"Everything was just right for him," Maddon said. "He had a great look about him."
Hellickson felt even better — and "absolutely" relieved — when he was done.
"It's been a long time since I felt good after a start," he said. "I can't really put my finger on what I did different. I felt the same, just stuff was a little sharper. I just had a little better command."
Hellickson retired the first nine A's, taking advantage of their uncharacteristic aggressiveness. He allowed only a fourth-inning single and Eric Sogard's first homer in more than a year in the sixth and only one other baserunner in a 99-pitch outing.
Maddon, who hadn't shown much confidence in pulling Hellickson at the first sign of trouble in his first three starts, spoke of it as a breakthrough.
"My thought is that he's done it once here, heads up, he could really take off from now on," Maddon said. "It's all about confidence.
"His stuff's been good. Literally. Fastball velocity? Good. Changeup arm speed? Good, check. Hook? Check, good. But no overall assertiveness aggressiveness in the zone, taking command of the situation. That was checked today.
"I really believe he could do that on a more consistent basis now that he has got the feeling back."
Hellickson was pleased to contribute to a win but took a more conservative view. "I don't want to get too far ahead of myself," he said. "It's just one game. It felt good. Hopefully I can do it again in five days."
The Rays are all hoping so, too. Maddon might even bet on it.
Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.