ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Jeremy Hellickson managed some humor at his expense. The timing was appropriate, fresh off one of his best starts of a season that has included its share of struggle for him.
The line was said in jest, but it spoke volumes. It showed the 26-year-old right-hander is aware he must be stronger, more consistent, and find his form of old.
Hellickson was talking about the fifth inning of the Tampa Bay Rays’ 8-0 victory over the Baltimore Orioles on Saturday at Tropicana Field. To begin, he allowed Matt Wieters to single to right field and J.J. Hardy to single to left. At the time, Tampa Bay led 3-0, and after fumbles in recent weeks, another lead for Hellickson appeared at risk with no outs.
Then, there was recovery. He struck out Chris Dickerson looking and forced Ryan Flaherty to ground into a fielder’s choice. Finally, Nate McLouth was retired on a harmless fly ball to left field.
No damage, no harm. Eventually, Tampa Bay’s lead grew to eight by the fifth’s end. Then, even Hellickson could breathe easier.
“I can’t even blow an eight-run lead,” said Hellickson, who allowed four hits and struck out five in six innings. “It was nice to get out of that fifth.”
For Hellickson, this season has included a share of low moments, with visible stumbles along the way. His May was particularly rough, when he posted a 6.69 ERA in six starts. That is why his clean, efficient outing Saturday could serve as a building point, an excuse to place May’s torments behind him.
“Rehabbing confidence for all of us is a tough thing,” Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. “Normally, it just shows up. You want it to happen. You work to make it happen.”
Thing is, that work can be a fight. In Hellickson’s case, the focus on him turned hot after Maddon had sharp words following Tampa Bay’s victory over the San Diego Padres on May 11, when the pitcher blew a four-run lead. The display followed his forgettable start May 6, when he allowed the Toronto Blue Jays to climb from a 7-0 deficit in an eventual Rays loss.
After the San Diego game, Maddon bristled. Usually centered and positive, the manager leaned back in his Tropicana Field office and said, “We want to play in October. We’ve got to be better than that.” The next day, a meeting between Maddon and Hellickson occurred that the manager described as positive for both.
Hellickson’s May slide was magnified, in part, because of success in other areas of the Rays’ rotation. This is a year when left-hander Matt Moore and right-hander Alex Cobb have emerged as two of the American League’s best. The pair has helped compensate for David Price’s absence and overall bizarre season.
They have earned the spotlight. They are the rotation’s current stars.
By comparison, Hellickson appeared to be a weaker link. (Entering Saturday, his 5.59 ERA was a rotation-high. Afterward, it stands at 5.18.)
He appeared to waver when given large leads. He appeared to look one inning from an efficient outing but fall short. He appeared to fight to find comfort in pressure situations.
“I never lost confidence,” Hellickson said. “I’ve been feeling really good. There were a few games where my command wasn’t where I would like it. It has cost me a couple games. But I never lost confidence in what I know I can do.”
He looked confident Saturday. For the Rays, that was the best sign, and it continued a trend. Since the early May criticism from Maddon, Hellickson has staged a turnaround of sorts.
As a result, Tampa Bay has fared better in his recent appearances: The Rays are 3-1 in his starts since May 17. On Saturday, he won consecutive decisions for the first time since July 24 and July 29, 2012.
Yes, Hellickson has received strong run support lately – the Rays have produced totals of 12, 11, eight and seven in this stretch – but he has done enough to be successful. He has not allowed a walk in each of his last two starts, only the third time in his career he has accomplished the feat.
Maddon, for one, sees Hellickson’s latest victory as proof of movement forward.
“I think when you stick with the process – the process with him would be to pound the bottom of the strike zone with his fastball, get ahead of hitters and work his changeup off that – work that process and results start to follow,” Maddon said.
“That, I want to believe, is a great first step to get back where he had been.”
The Hellickson of old – the one who finished with an ERA no higher than 3.10 in his first two full seasons in the majors, the one who was thought to be a strong No. 2 in the Rays’ rotation exiting spring – is the version Tampa Bay wants to see.