Tampa Bay Rays should find a way to keep Jeremy Hellickson around

ST. PETERSBURG

Later, he would show Tampa Bay why there has been so much fuss about his name. Later, he would dazzle in his one-game guest appearance. Later, the rest of the Rays' starting pitchers would stand aside so Kid Tomorrow could pitch the team back into first place.

For the moment, however, the night did not yet belong to Jeremy Hellickson. It belonged to his dad.

You know, that lean, happy man who looked as if his chest was about to burst.

It was in those sweet, keeper moments before the game, and Steve Hellickson stood at the rail by the Rays bullpen to watch his son warm up. The national anthem was playing, and there was an American flag in the distance, and an American League championship banner beside it. His kid, the kid standing on the mound, was about to make his major-league debut.

Steve Hellickson made a noise to clear his throat, because he didn't seem to trust his voice. He wiped his eyes.

"I'm kind of speechless here," the father said.

Before the night was over, a lot of Rays fans knew how he felt.

So this is why the Rays refused to trade Jeremy Hellickson. This is why serious Rays fans have been discussing his name for a long time now. There is electricity in that right arm of Hellickson's. There are big games and big moments.

In a way, they could have played Monday night's 4-2 Rays victory over the Twins inside of a crystal ball. This was your glimpse of the future. And, yes, he left the fans wanting more.

In seven innings, Hellickson allowed three hits and two runs. He retired the first 10 batters he faced, the first time that has happened in an AL pitcher's debut in five years. He displayed a nice fastball, a sneaky curve and a changeup that is downright deceitful. Coupled with Toronto's victory over the Yankees, he also enabled the Rays to climb back into a first-place tie.

All together now: The Rays are going to send him back to Durham after that?

Really?

That's the problem with a great preview. You can't wait for the movie to arrive. And if ever a pitcher provided an argument he should hang around, it was Hellickson.

Yeah, yeah. Hellickson pitched on Monday night simply because the Rays wanted to give their rotation a bit more rest; after all, no other team in the majors has started the same five pitchers all season long.

After this, however, isn't there a spot for Hellickson somewhere? Anywhere?

The Rays' answer? Not yet.

"Even if he had pitched a no-hitter, he was going back down,'' manager Joe Maddon said.

For the record, Hellickson wasn't in on the plan. He was still wet and cold from the celebratory beer shower given by his once-and-future teammates when he was told he was going back down.

"I like it better here than there,'' Hellickson said. "But I totally understand.''

He gets it. That seems to be one of the things the Rays like best. He knows how to pitch. He is calm; at least he was once the nervousness of warming up passed. He is controlled.

Soon, he will be back.

Oh, Hellickson will be back to work in the bullpen, maybe get a spot start or two. On the other hand, why wait? Ask Jim Thome, who struck out twice on changeups from Hellickson.

"That felt pretty good," Steve Hellickson said, grinning. Then again, Steve Hellickson spent most of Monday night grinning. That, and telling stories.

"One of the top three nights of my life," Steve said. "This and the birth of Jeremy and the birth of my daughter (Stevie Ray, aged 20).

Leanne Hellickson was there, too, and both sets of grandparents, and cousins and friends. In all, there were 14 tickets left for the Hellickson gang.

Most of all, however, baseball is a father-and-son game. It was impossible to look over at Steve and not think about how cool his night must have been. That was Jeremy out there, the boy who learned to walk at 6 months, the toddler who forced the batting practice game outside at age 2 because he kept knocking picture frames off the wall, the teenager who hurt the growth plate in his arm, according to a doctor, because 17-year-olds aren't supposed to throw 90 mph.

It was Steve, a fork-lift driver at a shipping company, who drove his son to the airport after he was drafted, and both of them were in tears until Steve told his son this was supposed to be a happy moment. It wasn't as if he had been drafted to go to war.

"I don't remember that I cried,'' Jeremy said. "My dad might have.''

Then there was the time late in a high school basketball game when Hellickson stole the ball with five seconds to play in a tie game and drove to the basket. He was fouled, and he hit both free throws for the win. There was his 2-1 victory over Cuba while pitching in the Pan Am Games in Taiwan, with his teammates rushing the field to lift him on their shoulders when it was done. Then there was this year's Futures Game, when Joey Hellickson, Jeremy's cousin, texted him during the game that he wanted the jersey Jeremy was wearing. Turns out, he barely beat Steve to the souvenir.

Then there was Monday night, when Hellickson reached another notch on the growth chart.

Yeah, the kid looked like he belonged. Yeah, the kid looked ready. Yeah, you could argue the Rays should stop his plane before it takes off and find a place for him on the roster.

Still, there will be more to come.

Get your jersey orders in quickly.

Tampa Bay Rays should find a way to keep Jeremy Hellickson around 08/03/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 3, 2010 12:41am]

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