Notebook: Jeremy Hellickson tosses bullpen session, aims for late-June return

Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Jeremy Hellickson threw about 40 pitches in a successful bullpen session Wednesday in his continued work to return from arthroscopic elbow surgery.

Jeremy Hellickson had arthroscopic elbow surgery in January.

Kim Klement / USA TODAY Sports

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Jeremy Hellickson threw about 40 pitches in a successful bullpen session Wednesday in his continued work to return from arthroscopic elbow surgery.

Hellickson, who had the procedure done on his right elbow in January, has targeted a late June return to the rotation. He called the session "good" as he jogged out of the home dugout at Tropicana Field less than three hours before the second game of a three-game series between the Rays and Baltimore Orioles.

"He didn't throw the curveball, but he did throw the fastball and the change-up," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "He was comfortable. I think he was pretty happy by the end of it. He felt pretty good about how it felt release-wise, coming-out-of-his-hand-wise."

Hellickson, 27, had targeted an early June return before suffering a minor setback because of soreness from throwing curveballs. Earlier this week, he said he threw bullpen sessions last Thursday and Sunday. He also tossed from about 100 feet Tuesday.

"I definitely care," Hellickson said Tuesday of the sliding timetable for his return. "It's just hard to say, because I don't know how I'll respond after each bullpen. It's frustrating to an extent. But I've just got to keep rehabbing it and treating it. I definitely want to be out there more than I want to be in the training room."

RELIEVERS RECEIVING WORK

It's no secret that the Rays' bullpen has received a heavy workload early this season. After 33 games, Tampa Bay relievers had worked an American League-high 117.2 innings. By comparison, they had worked 82 last year at this time.

The reason for the spike is simple. Three presumed starters after spring training -- left-hander Matt Moore and right-handers Hellickson and Alex Cobb -- are on the disabled list with various issues. Moore is out for about a year after undergoing Tommy John surgery April 22. Meanwhile, Cobb said he expects to return sometime in late May from a left oblique strain, with Hellickson following about a month later.

A few startling stats: Since April 13, Rays pitchers own a 5.33 ERA, the highest in the majors; their rotation has a 5.67 ERA, the highest in the majors; and Rays starters have lasted just 55.2 percent of the team's innings.

"We've had a couple years where we went through the same issues with starters not getting deeply into the game," Maddon said. "We finally figured it out, and all of the sudden they took off. The difference is now that those were the regular starters out of spring training. These are guys who are trying to fit in while other guys are being hurt. That's the unique rub about this one."

No matter the reason, left-hander David Price said Rays' starters must go deeper.

"As a whole, with the starters, we all know that we need to throw the ball better," he said. "We definitely need to be able to go deeper into games. ... We just need to get better as a whole, and if we can lighten the load on our bullpen, which has had a very heavy load thus far, they will help us out a lot."

TIGHT AL EAST

Going into play Wednesday, 2.5 games separated the AL East leader (Baltimore) from the division's last-place team (Tampa Bay). Since 1994, when the current divisional format began, this was only the fourth time a division had been separated by 2.5 games on May 7. The previous instances were the National League Central in 1996, the AL West in 1999 and the NL West in 2001.

This was also the first time the AL East didn't have a team with at least 18 wins at this point in a season since the current divisional format was established.

Maddon had thoughts on why parity is more common.

"I think the drug-testing policy that's in place combined with the analytics -- those are strange bedfellows, I'm not sure," Maddon said. "But I think both of them in their own unique ways has kind of leveled this thing off and created more parity."

RYAN HANIGAN OK

Catcher Ryan Hanigan said he felt fine after a rough night Tuesday in a loss to the Orioles at Tropicana Field. He was hit in the hand when batting and received a foul ball off his right shoulder when catching.

On Wednesday, he started behind the plate and batted ninth.

"I'm all good," he said. "Just part of it. One of those games."

DON ZIMMER BANNER

The Rays created a visual reminder that their thoughts are with Don Zimmer, the baseball icon who has served as the team's senior adviser since January 2004. Zimmer, 83, underwent surgery to repair a leaky heart valve April 16. The team said he remains hospitalized, but he's able to watch Rays games on television.

A large white sign that reads, "ZIM" in black block letters hangs under the press box to the left of home plate.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.