ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Finally, Jeremy Hellickson’s wait is almost over.
The Tampa Bay Rays right-hander is scheduled to make his season debut against the Kansas City Royals on Tuesday night at Tropicana Field. The development marks a much-awaited endpoint for Hellickson in his journey back to playing shape, after he experienced numerous twists and turns in his recovery from arthroscopic surgery in late January on his throwing elbow.
"It has definitely been a long time, but it has felt even longer," said Hellickson, who originally was thought to miss just six to eight weeks. "I was expecting to be back a month ago. I had a couple setbacks, but I’m feeling good now."
Hellickson, 27, was reinstated from the disabled list after Tampa Bay’s victory over the Detroit Tigers on Sunday at Comerica Park. He finished 1-4 with a 6.23 ERA, 18 strikeouts and six walks in 21 2/3 innings in six minor-league rehab starts — five with Triple-A Durham and one with High-A Charlotte.
To make room in the rotation, left-hander Erik Bedard (4-6, 4.82 ERA) was moved to the bullpen.
Hellickson said controlling his emotions will be a challenge, but he’s eager to return in a Rays uniform. He has plenty to prove: He posted a rough 5.17 ERA in 32 appearances (31 starts) last season, and he became a clear weak link in Tampa Bay’s rotation.
He said he worked on his fastball command in rehab starts and that his curveball stands as his best pitch going into his season debut.
"Hopefully, I don’t have the butterflies I had my first start in Durham," Hellickson said. "I was pretty anxious. I’m going to have to control those tomorrow and get the ball down in the first inning. The excitement going through my body, it’s going to be tough. I’ve just got to settle down and just get out there. I’m just ready to get out there again."
Manager Joe Maddon is ready to see Hellickson as well. No abbreviated pitch count is expected in Hellickson’s return.
"If he’s between 100-110 (pitches) with a Rays lead in the sixth or the seventh inning," Maddon said, "that would be kind of nice."
Left-hander David Price was named to his fourth All-Star team Sunday night. Don’t expect him to lose appreciation for the honor.
"They’re all still special," Price said Monday. "It’s still fun to get to go and watch all the festivities. You get a bunch of cool gifts as well, so that’s a really cool part too. But they’re all special."
Price’s recent surge makes him a sensible pick as Tampa Bay’s lone representative for now. He’s 8-7 with a 3.48 ERA in 19 starts this season. He had five consecutive starts with double-digit strikeouts from June 4-25, and he has 159 strikeouts and just 20 walks this season.
Still, reliever Jake McGee was thought to be a favorite to become an All-Star. Entering Monday, he had a sterling 1.16 ERA with five saves and 45 strikeouts in 38 2/3 innings this season. On many occasions, Maddon mentioned him as a possible All-Star, and Price praised McGee as well.
"Yeah, a little disappointing," McGee said of the initial roster revealed Sunday. "There’s a lot of hype with it and stuff. But at the end of the day, I was thinking that it’s hard for middle relievers to make it."
There’s still a chance McGee can appear in the All-Star Game, which will be held July 15 at Target Field in Minneapolis. He could be among the replacements named after Sunday starters and other relievers are used closer to the game’s date.
But if McGee stays home, he has a fine reason to anticipate the time off. He said his first kid, daughter Rowen, is due Thursday.
"I’ll be able to spend more time with my daughter for the All-Star break and just kind of focus on that," McGee said.
Maddon said shortstop Yunel Escobar, on the disabled list with a sore right shoulder since July 1 (retroactive to June 25), will play for High-A Charlotte on Tuesday against Jupiter in Port Charlotte, Florida, for as long as the player needs. Escobar will be the designated hitter in the game.
Escobar also is scheduled to play shortstop for Charlotte against Jupiter on Wednesday. He has hit .244 with four home runs and 22 RBI this season. He last played for the Rays in a loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates on June 24, when he went 0 for 3.
Escobar was supposed to begin his rehab assignment by playing shortstop for the GCL Rays on Monday, but the game was rained out.
— The Rays signed Dominican Republic shortstop Adrian Rondon for $2.95 million Monday. Observers consider Rondon, who just turned 16, one of the most skilled international prospects eligible to sign in 2014. Before the deal was completed, the Rays traded minor league right-hander Matt Ramsey to the Miami Marlins for their second, third and fourth international bonus slots, a total of $1,000,800 worth of slots.
"I’m happy for myself and for my family, and I thank God," Rondon said through a translator. "I’m thankful for the opportunity to sign. It’s a dream come true, truthfully, not for the money, but for the chance to compete in the major leagues. It’s truly going to change my life. I’ve worked for this every day from 7 (a.m.) to 7 at night to have this chance. There were many sacrifices."
— The Rays’ series opener against the Royals included some nostalgia. They faced former Tampa Bay workhorse right-hander James Shields, who was traded in December 2012 in a blockbuster deal that sent outfielder Wil Myers and right-hander Jake Odorizzi to Tampa Bay. It was Shields’ first start at Tropicana Field since the seven-player trade, though he pitched against his former team in Kansas City’s victory on April 30, 2013, at Kauffman Stadium.
"I’m sure he’s feeling a lot of different emotions right now," Maddon said before the game Monday. "I mentioned it yesterday that I’d really like to see that the fans would acknowledge it appropriately. He’s a big part of us becoming the Rays over the Devil Rays."