Through two weeks of his first major-league spring training, Jeremy Hellickson was most distinguished by his schoolboy looks, quiet demeanor, hardy work ethic and dry Iowa sense of humor. The Rays who didn't know him weren't sure exactly what to make of the 22-year-old sitting in the corner of the clubhouse who's considered one of the game's top pitching prospects but looks like he could be a kid delivering pizza or a spring break collegian. "I've got MIT student, something like quantum physics," manager Joe Maddon said. "He looks more studious than athletic." But those who played alongside Hellickson as he starred in Double A and dominated Triple A last season would look knowingly, well aware of what the pitcher they called the Silent Assassin was capable of when he took the mound. Friday afternoon — with 10,753 fans, the Yankees Entertainment and Sports/MLB Network cameras and the mighty Yankees as witnesses — Hellickson showed the first glimpse.
Twenty-three pitches. One and one-third innings. One hit, a triple by a backup catcher named Francisco Cervelli. Two strikeouts, a couple of guys named Derek Jeter (who flailed at a nasty curve) and Mark Teixeira (on a gutsy full-count changeup).
"Liked it," Maddon said.
"Very impressive," Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey said.
It's one thing to impress your bosses, which Hellickson clearly did with the pitches he made and, even more so, how he made them.
"They had some good hitters coming up, and he was okay with the moment," Maddon said. "He came in and threw all of his pitches, he threw strikes, he was in control of his emotions."
But there also were words of high praise flowing on the other side of Steinbrenner Field.
From Teixeira: "I saw a good fastball that's got some life to it. … (At) 3-0, he came back and threw two strikes I looked at that were nice and firm, and then a nice 3-2 changeup. It takes a lot of confidence to throw a 3-2 changeup."
From Curtis Granderson, who grounded out: "From what the guys were saying, he was throwing pretty hard (93 mph on the YES Network gun) — that's pretty good for March 5. It looked easy, it looked effortless."
And from Cervelli, who had faced Hellickson through the minors: "He's going to be a great pitcher. He's real quiet. His mechanics are perfect. He's sneaky. His changeup is really good. He's outstanding."
Only Jeter — who Hellickson "grew up loving to watch" and named his dog after — demurred, saying it was too early to make any assessments.
Hellickson, typically, didn't offer much. He said he was more excited than nervous, he was surprised to come in mid-inning (getting out of David Price's two-out, two-on mess when catcher Dioner Navarro picked off Nick Swisher), he was concentrating on throwing strikes and not getting behind.
"It was," he admitted later, "a lot of fun."
Hellickson's progress is important for the Rays, even though at this point the 2005 fourth-round pick out of Des Moines' Hoover High is likely to spend most of the season at Triple-A Durham.
And it's big news back home in Iowa, where his father, Steve, and 30 to 40 of his closest friends and relatives gathered Friday to watch at Porky's Pub and Garage.
"We were all freaking out when he came in and we realized he was going to face Jeter," Steve said. "Obviously, we're just proud as can be."
So, too, are the Rays.
"I don't know him all that well yet," Maddon said, "but everything I heard about him all adds up."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]es.com.