ST. PETERSBURG — Manager Joe Maddon said he was concerned early in Sunday's game as rookie right-hander Jeremy Hellickson didn't have his best stuff, specifically his fastball command.
Maddon said he wondered how long Hellickson would last. But he also had another thought:
"Let's see what he does."
What Hellickson did might have impressed the Rays more than his first two big-league wins, delivering a gritty six-inning performance in a 3-2 victory over the Orioles in front of 29,654 at Tropicana Field.
Carl Crawford provided the offense with three hits, including a homer and two RBIs, as the Rays (71-46) pulled within one game of the AL East-leading Yankees and moved five ahead of the Red Sox in the wild-card race.
And Hellickson (3-0), who is still likely headed to the bullpen after his next start Friday in Oakland, became the first player in the modern era (since 1920) to pitch at least six innings and allow three hits or fewer in his first three major-league starts.
"The first two games, (Hellickson) was on top of everything, the velocity, the break, the location, the tempo — everything was on," Maddon said. "(Sunday) it was not. He goes out there through six and only gives up one run. That really speaks to his pitchability, and that he's got all this guile at such a young age. …
"You can't overstate how good it is to see a young pitcher go out there without his best everything and be able to compete like he did."
Hellickson, 23, said he didn't have the same life on his fastball in the first three innings, and he couldn't locate it as well. But he liked his curveball and changeup, using those to get ahead, and never gave up on his fastball.
"I just kept throwing it," he said. "And it finally came."
And Crawford helped give Hellickson two one-run leads with huge hits, picking up his first multihit game since Aug. 1.
Crawford said that given how much he does with his legs, slumps tend to occur around this time of year, but it felt good to have a big day. "It kind of gives you confidence," he said.
Maddon said Crawford made a mechanical adjustment with his hand placement, and it paid off.
"In different times through his career, I've seen him where he'll drop off a bit and get in a little bit of a slump," Maddon said. "And then as he dropped, he just takes off. This would be a great time for him to take off."
Maddon felt Hellickson showed a lot by throwing his offspeed pitches when he got in a tough moment in the fourth, striking out Felix Pie and Jake Fox swinging with two on.
The Rays defense helped Hellickson, with third baseman Evan Longoria making a spectacular sliding catch into the bullpen in the first, and centerfielder B.J. Upton racing back to rob Adam Jones of extra bases in the second. And the bullpen closed it out; Joaquin Benoit got a huge strikeout of former Ray Ty Wigginton to end the eighth, stranding the tying run at third, and Rafael Soriano picked up his 33rd save.
It all capped off another win, and a teaching moment for Hellickson.
"He needs to know that if it's not all (working), he can still pitch a really good major-league game," Maddon said. "I'm sure he's done it in the past, I mean, this guy is different. But to do it under these circumstances in a pennant race that well, I think it's a great lesson for him and anyone else watching."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org