Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays' Hellickson steps up in big moment

ST. PETERSBURG

Finally, Jeremy Hellickson slammed the door in someone's face.

Finally, he stepped on someone's neck.

It was the fifth inning, and as often happens, Hellickson seemed as if he were standing on shaky ground. It was one of those "here we go again" moments, when a perfectly safe lead is threatened, when Hellickson goes from a pitcher who is cruising in a game to one where he is against the ropes.

You have seen it too many times this season. Against the Royals, against the Blue Jays, against the Padres. Hellickson has a nice lead, and he is in a nice rhythm, and suddenly, the ground seems to swallow him up. No lead seems safe. No performance seems trustworthy.

Except this one.

Finally, Hellickson closed the deal.

For the Rays, this is no small thing. If they are going to make a run at the American League East — and they squeezed past Baltimore into third place Saturday night, which is a small step in the proper direction — they need Hellickson to be Hellickson. If they are going to make a run, they need him to be a stingy, efficient pitcher.

For a day, at least, he was.

Go back to the fifth inning. The Rays were ahead 3-0 when Hellickson gave up a single to Matt Wieters and an even sharper single to J.J. Hardy. No one out, and uh-oh.

These have been the moments when Hellickson has not been himself this year, when he starts to nibble at the plate and the other team's offense comes alive, and just like that, fireworks burst from the scoreboard.

This time? Hellickson was in control. He struck out Chris Dickerson on a full count. He coaxed a ground ball from Ryan Flaherty. He got a routine fly from Nate McLouth.

Suddenly, Hellickson was the biggest security guard in the stadium, and the danger was averted.

For the record, Hellickson says he wasn't thinking "here we go again." Just the rest of us.

"I was thinking about getting a ground ball and controlling the damage," Hellickson said. "It was huge (getting out of trouble). Getting out of that with a zero and then in the bottom half, (the Rays) putting up a five spot. Even I can't give up an eight-run lead."

Oh, there have been times when it has been close. Hellickson led the Royals 5-0 this year and couldn't hold it. He led the Jays 7-0 and couldn't hold it. He led the Padres 6-0 and couldn't hold it. It is odd, because he is such an even-keeled guy, but at times it was as if Hellickson was body snatched between innings. He would be rolling along, and suddenly, he could not get an out.

Remember, Hellickson is this team's No. 2 pitcher. Considering the struggles (and injury) of David Price, no one needed to step up more than Hellickson. And despite great run support, he was scuffling along with a 3-2 record and a 5.59 ERA entering Saturday's game. With runners in scoring position, hitters were hitting .362 against him (and .478 with two outs and runners in scoring position).

That's why Saturday's game was big for the pitcher and big for the franchise.

"I've felt good even in the games I've been roughed up in," Hellickson said. "Nothing's missing. I've made some bad pitches in crucial spots and, before you know it, it's a four- or five-run inning, and I've made one bad pitch the whole inning."

This time, and about time, Hellickson was ruthless. He said he felt a little extra life to his fastball, and he worked the corners well for most of the day. He ended up giving up only five hits in his six innings.

"That's who he is," manager Joe Maddon said. "When he's going well, he gets into this nice little tempo thing. When he gets scattered and walks a few people and really tries to nibble, that's when he gets into trouble. Today, he was aggressive in the strike zone and took command."

Even in the fifth, Maddon liked what he saw from Hellickson. Throughout the year, that hasn't always been so.

"I thought he looked good," Maddon said. "There were times this year when things would begin to speed up on him. I didn't see that today. He kept throwing 92, which meant to me that he was under control of his emotions. Everything was on time. It looked really familiar. That's what I'm used to seeing."

For instance, Hellickson stranded the highest percentage of runners in baseball last year (82.7). This year, it was down to 62.7, the second-worst rate in the American League.

There are big moments and small ones in baseball. The Rays probably could have survived Saturday with an ordinary Hellickson. Heck, they had plenty of runs. But could they survive July and August without a performance such as this one?

If you can add a rejuvenated Hellickson to Matt Moore and Alex Cobb, and if Price comes back, you can imagine the possibilities with this team.

"It's got to do a lot for his confidence," Maddon said. "He used to do that all the time, and it's gotten away from him. I've got to believe what he did today against a good-hitting lineup is going to bleed into his next performance. If he can't derive confidence from the way he pitched today, when can he?"

Look, it's just one moment, in one inning, in one ballgame. Hellickson has to string a few of these together.

Finally, he made you believe.

It's a start.

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