NEW YORK — No matter how powerful the offense or dazzling the defense in the previous day's game, Rays manager Joe Maddon insists that the actual transference of momentum is the responsibility of the starting pitcher.
And Saturday, rookie Jeremy Hellickson failed them from the start.
Hellickson didn't deliver a happy 50th birthday present to his father, Steve, who came in from their Iowa home for the weekend, nor much else good. He put the Rays behind early, and reliever Brandon Gomes made it worse, in what ended up a 9-2 loss.
"I'm disappointed for sure," Hellickson said. "Especially after the way we played (Friday) night, I wanted to come out and do the same thing and get another game on these guys, so I'm definitely disappointed."
Whatever the Rays gained from Friday's crisp series-opening victory that extended their winning streak to a season-high five, including a vital game in the standings, was lost with the poor performance. The Rays (64-55) are now 8½ games behind the wild card-leading Yankees, and 10 from the AL East-leading Red Sox, with 43 games left, including 17 with the teams ahead of them.
"It's tough, because we know what we're up against," DH Johnny Damon said. "We do play them a lot to help us get back to where we want to be, but it's almost like you have to sweep every time.
"Obviously, the Yankees are going to be a tough team to think about sweeping all the time. Hopefully we can get (today's) game and head into the off day at least improving one game. But, you know, it's tough. That's this game."
Hellickson, who hadn't lost since June 27, made it obvious early he wasn't on, throwing Ball 1 to Yankees leadoff man Brett Gardner then hitting him with the next pitch.
"You know that he's not even swinging," Maddon said. "So you don't even have to be that fine — just throw the ball down the middle. And we hit him. That's not a good sign, that he's unable to throw the ball where he wants to at that point."
Hellickson escaped the first, but the second got ugly quickly as he loaded the bases on an infield single and two walks, then allowed a one-out, two-run single to Jorge Posada.
He kept battling, himself and the Yankees, through the third and fourth (two hits each inning) before more trouble in the fifth, giving up Curtis Granderson's 33rd homer and a one-out double to Robinson Cano, ending his day with 99 pitches in 4⅓ innings. Gomes made it worse, coming in and walking Nick Swisher and Eric Chavez, then allowing a grand slam to Posada, who hardly looked like a man on his last swings with six RBIs.
"We didn't pitch well," Maddon said. "That's not like us."
Hellickson said, "I just couldn't find it the whole game," and had no reason, saying he felt fine and warmed up well.
But rest could be an issue as with Alex Cobb out, Hellickson was pitching in a standard five-day rotation for the first time since early June (when he lost four straight). On four days rest, Hellickson is now 2-3, 4.29. With more, he is 8-5, 2.83.
"I don't know," Maddon said. "He definitely was not looking like he normally does. He's been through that before with the lack of command of his fastball, but he normally rights himself by the third or the fourth inning. It just did not want to happen today."
That pretty much summed it up.
Marc Topkin can be reached at top[email protected]