ST. PETERSBURG — Two significant accomplishments took place in the general vicinity of the Tropicana Field mound Friday night.
First, rookie starter Jeremy Hellickson threw the first nine-inning complete game of his life, and a four-hit shutout at that, in the Rays' 3-0 win over the Orioles.
And second, the usually stoic and stone-faced Hellickson actually, amazingly, flashed a smile about it.
"I was just really happy," Hellickson said.
Manager Joe Maddon was pretty sure he saw the makings of a slight smile as Hellickson wiped off the vanilla whipped cream facial applied by David Price, and took it as a sign that Hellickson was "absolutely, hysterically happy."
Price, who has better control of his pitches than his pies, said he was certain he saw a big grin.
"He was cheesing," Price said.
There was a lot to be happy about as the Rays improved to 23-15 and extended their AL East lead over the Yankees to two games before a spirited Tropicana Field crowd of 20,476.
Matt Joyce continued his torrid reign as the American League's top hitter, delivering a two-run homer in the second to boost his average to .369. Johnny Damon added a solo shot in the eighth that also pushed him into 73rd place on the all-time hit list at 2,606, supplanting Tim Raines as the leader among Orlando-area players.
But it started and, more important, ended with Hellickson.
The Des Moines, Iowa, native had thrown several seven-inning complete games, "a few" for Hoover High and one as part of a doubleheader in July 2007 at Class A Columbus. But he had never worked more than eight innings in his 102 other minor-league starts, and seven was the high in his brief big-league career.
Friday was different, certainly better than his five-walk, five-inning outing in Baltimore last weekend. He mixed his fastball, changeup and curve in a way that made it look easy for him and made the Orioles look bad.
"He had really good off-balance stuff," Maddon said. "They didn't know what was coming. … I think he had them guessing all night long. He had only three (strikeouts) but a lot of weak contact because he was locating so well and mixing all of his pitches."
"He pitched backwards," Orioles centerfielder Adam Jones said, "and had us completely off balance all night."
Hellickson, 24, wasn't really threatened, allowing only two runners past first base, getting help from his defense (and himself with a pickoff) and retiring the last 13 batters.
The bigger challenge was whether Maddon was going to let him finish.
"I wanted it bad," Hellickson said. "This is the one that counts."
He had already thrown 107 pitches, matching his personal high at any level, when he started the ninth. Maddon didn't tell him, but with Kyle Farnsworth warming, the plan was Hellickson could pitch until he allowed a baserunner or got three outs.
Hellickson figured as much, getting the final three Orioles in a span of 13 pitches, and Maddon was glad to see him do it.
"With a young pitcher like that, to throw a complete-game shutout can really catapult him into the next level," Maddon said. "That's the kind of moment right there that can really make Jeremy take off. … Because once you've done it, you know you can do it in the future and you know what it feels like to do it. … That's a good way to teach yourself a lesson right there."