BOSTON — For a guy who appeared in only 21 games for Triple-A Durham, RHP Jeremy Hellickson had a pretty impressive season.
Impressive enough that Tuesday he was named minor-league player of the year by Baseball America.
"I played against a lot of really good players down there so to win it means a lot," Hellickson said. "I wasn't really expecting it. It's definitely a good feeling."
Hellickson went 12-3 with a 2.45 ERA, 123 strikeouts and 35 walks in 118 innings before being called up by the Rays Aug. 2, then demoted to Class A for 11 days to get acclimated to the bullpen before being recalled last week.
Knowing he'd spend most of the season in Durham, Hellickson said his main goal was to become more consistent and reduce the poor starts that tended to occur after three to four good ones.
"All I could do is go down there and stay consistent and develop further down there," he said. "And I think I did a good job of that."
Hellickson is the third Rays prospect to win award, joining Rocco Baldelli (2002) and Delmon Young (2005). He is the just the fifth pitcher to win in the past 22 years of the award and eighth overall since its 1981 inception.
"That's awesome," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "We saw what he did up here (in his three starts), and I'm sure it looked a lot like that down there. That's great for him and that's great for the organization.''
Hellickson's next assignment continues to be a challenge, however, as he struggled again Tuesday when used in relief, allowing three runs on three hits and a walk in 1⅔ innings.
TALL TASK: Maddon was unequivocal in saying RHP Jeff Niemann would stay in the rotation and make his next start as scheduled Sunday in Toronto, and unbridled in his confidence the results would be better.
One area to be addressed is mechanical, with Niemann and pitching coach Jim Hickey noticing several correctable flaws in his fastball delivery after watching video Monday night and again Tuesday afternoon.
"Everything's really close," Niemann said. "It's just a matter of going out there and executing it."
Another is strategic, with Maddon suggesting Niemann make more frequent, and quicker, use of his curveball and other off-speed pitches when he doesn't have command of his fastball. "We've got to get him to go out and recognize this isn't working, so do this other thing," Maddon said.
PITCHING IN: RHP Mike Ekstrom was called back up from Triple A to bolster the bullpen. With Andy Sonnanstine off a couple days after throwing 78 pitches on Monday, RHP Lance Cormier working in three straight games and Hellickson's limited availability, Ekstrom provides insurance as a potential long man. "You just can't leave yourself short right now," Maddon said.
HE'S THE MAN: RHP James Shields is the Rays nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award, given annually to the player who combines "a dedication to giving back to the community with outstanding skills." Shields has been involved with efforts to assist foster children and this season opened the Big Game James Club at the Trop.
MINOR MATTERS: Class A Charlotte opened the best-of-three first-round Florida State League playoffs with a 5-0 loss to Bradenton (Pirates). Minor-league strikeout king LHP Matt Moore fanned 10 in 6⅓ innings. Game 2 is tonight in Port Charlotte. … Triple-A Durham opens the best-of-five first-round International League playoffs tonight in Louisville (Reds) with RHP Richard De Los Santos on the mound. … RHP Alex Cobb, OF Rashad Eldridge and C Craig Albernaz were moved up from Double-A Montgomery to Durham.
MISCELLANY: 3B Evan Longoria's homer was his 12th against Boston, matching teammate Carlos Peña and Yankees 1B Mark Teixeira for the most since 2008. … LHP David Price tied the team mark with his ninth road win. … Hitting coach Derek Shelton made batting practice optional Tuesday, though most players participated.