ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Jeremy Hellickson walked toward his dugout to a standing ovation from some. His return to the Tampa Bay Rays’ rotation was, by any reasonable analysis, better than expected. He entered as a wild card Tuesday at Tropicana Field, the ghosts of his grisly 2013 season not far from memory with each whisper of his name.
Only Hellickson can chase the suspicion that has become part of his reputation. Even after his solid line on this night, one run and six hits allowed with one walk and two strikeouts in 4 1/3 innings during the Rays’ 4-3 victory over the Kansas City Royals, he remains part mystery and part potential mess.
It’s a strange existence for someone of Hellickson’s skill and resume. The soft-spoken right-hander was the 2011 American League Rookie of the Year, and he won an AL Gold Glove Award in 2012.
But there were more hard times than hardware for him in 2013, a year that included as many dips and twirls as a Six Flags thrill ride. He finished 12-10 with a career-worst 5.17 ERA, and there was the odd demotion to High-A Charlotte in August to calm his mind before a September sprint toward the playoffs.
The question then: Who is this guy?
The answer now: Who knows?
"I was pretty anxious," Hellickson said Tuesday. "I had a few butterflies floating around in there when I was warming up in the outfield. It just felt really good to get back out on the mound in a big league game. A lot of times, I didn’t really feel too nervous there once the game started."
This was supposed to be Hellickson’s redemption summer. Before news broke of the late January arthroscopic surgery on his throwing elbow, a swift start to 2014 had a chance to wipe clean last year’s stains: The 2-2 record with a 5.61 ERA over his first 11 starts, the 2-7 mark with a 7.15 ERA over his final 11 appearances (10 starts), the one-inning quick hook from manager Joe Maddon in the Rays’ Game 4 loss to the Boston Red Sox in the AL Division Series.
A chance for a rebound was delayed. Even so, there were doubts that a bounce back would take place at all.
Hellickson required six rehab starts, one with Charlotte and five with Triple-A Durham. The results didn’t inspire this-guy-is-ready-to-roll feelings: He went 1-4 with a 6.23 ERA in 21 2/3 innings with 18 strikeouts and six walks.
There was curiosity that if both the Rays and Hellickson continued to struggle, the young pitcher might not return to the majors this year. Such a development wouldn’t have become a shock.
But that delay didn’t happen, and instead, Hellickson was here. So was the intrigue.
"I thought he was pretty good," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Like I was saying, he’s going to get stretched out. He’s going to get sharper. But fastball velocity was good. Curveball was really good, I thought. … So the stuff was there."
This re-entry felt different than Alex Cobb’s return on May 22 after he missed more than a month because of a left oblique strain. Cobb has proven himself to be more of a rotation staple, and Hellickson’s erratic ways have made the mild Midwesterner less of a lock.
Still, Hellickson beat visions of a red-button panic against Kansas City. His changeup was inconsistent and his fastball command wavered, but he walked from the mound for a final time minus the cringe that too often accompanied his starts last year.
He knows this is a first step and little more.
"I still could be a lot better," Hellickson said. "And I think the changeup is very inconsistent right now. I threw a couple good ones, and I bounced a few, and one was four or five feet outside, and then I could throw a couple more good ones. It’s just too inconsistent. I thought my fastball command was a lot better than it was down in the minors. Way too many pitches. Way too many three-ball counts. But for the most part, I thought it went pretty good."
Sure, but not too much should be taken from this glimpse.
Maddon was wise Monday in saying he’d remain open-minded about Hellickson’s progress. The manager will study telling markers: Is the fastball velocity up? (It hovered in the low 90-mph range most of the night.) Is the curveball thrown with confidence? Is the life there?
Answers remain. Hellickson pitched in the majors again. Hellickson survived but wasn’t spotless. Hellickson entered his dugout to fist bumps from eager teammates, visual evidence that the darkest of doubts were unfounded on this night.
No matter where he goes, no matter the tests to come, only he has the power to lose the wild-card label forever.