Hellickson delivers birthday gem vs. Yankees

Published Apr. 8, 2012 8:27 p.m. ET

The reigning AL Rookie of the Year shackled the New York Yankees with a 3-0 shutout — the most dominant outing ever by a Rays pitcher against their AL East rival — and helped complete a three-game sweep to start the season.

Well, so much for spring training.

Forget the rocky one Hellickson endured — and ditto for the lackluster, injury-riddled exhibition season the Rays experienced. In fact, if ever there was a textbook example of how meaningless spring results can be, this is it.

Hellickson, who went winless during camp with an ERA of 9.00, was his wily, even-keeled self in his first start, allowing only three hits over 8-2/3 innings. He came within one out of becoming the first pitcher in Rays history to shut out the Yankees, but still went further than any Tampa Bay starter had in holding the Bronx Bombers scoreless.

"At first I didn't even know i was his birthday," said Rays catcher Jose Molina, the veteran free agent signed during the offseason. "That's kind of bad for a teammate, right? So I probably have to get something for him. Maybe a cake tomorrow."

The Rays earned the right to have a few slices, too. The team that couldn't hit at all this spring (dead last among all teams at .231) and finished 10-16 amid a wave of injuries can't stop hitting — or winning.

Before an Easter crowd of 30,014, Tampa Bay extended its club-record winning streak over New York to seven games, and with eight consecutive victories the Rays have the longest winning streak in baseball. More important, the Rays have jumped off to the kind of fast start manager Joe Maddon has preached about the past two months. It's a stark contrast to last year's 0-6 pratfall and especially important with a tough 10-game road trip that begins Tuesday in Detroit before heading to Boston and Toronto.

On Sunday, Carlos Pena's reunion weekend continued in full swing. He sent his second homer of the series over the wall in right-center in the third for a 2-0 lead and barely missing a second blast by inches for a double in the fifth (on a play that featured fan interference for the second game in a row).

After Pena's dismal spring — a .106 batting average (12 for 61) with just one homer — who could have envisioned his three-day effort against the Yankees? He marked his return after a year with the Cubs with a grand slam and game-winning hit in a 7-6 triumph. He added a hit, RBI and two walks in Saturday's 8-6 win. And Sunday he raised his batting average to .500 (6 for 12) while driving in a run for the third straight game —the first time he’s done that to start the season.

Tampa Bay's career home run leader now has 24 of them against the Yankees, including 23 in his past six seasons — eight more than any other player, ahead of Boston's David Ortiz with 15 and teammate Evan Longoria with 14.

"I feel good," Pena said. "Every at-bat is different; every at-bat is a new challenge. So I try to prepare myself to the best of my ability and that's all I can do. … Every time I get up there, it's a new adventure."

It's been one for the Rays as well. Last year they didn't take a lead until the 63rd inning of the season. So far they've taken a first-inning lead in each game. And they leave town with a team batting average of .302 (25 for 96).

An array of players contributed to that uncharacteristic showing for a team that hit only .244 last season. Longoria hit .600 (6 for 10) in the series with a homer on Friday, an overturned homer (due to fan interference) Saturday night that wound up as a double, and another double Sunday.

He scored the game's first run when Matt Joyce tripled to right after Nick Swisher missed on a diving attempt at the ball. In his past seven games against the Yankees, Longoria is 11 for 20 with 11 walks and has a hitting streak of seven games dating to Sept. 25.

The left-handed-hitting Joyce started on a sour note, striking out three times Friday against stellar southpaw CC Sabathia. But Maddon boosted him in the lineup to cleanup Saturday, providing a little confidence boost as well, and Joyce responded with a home run and two-run single, and wrapped up the series at .333 with four RBI.

New second baseman Jeff Keppinger also continued swinging a hot bat. He smashed a 406-foot homer to left-center in the fifth for a 3-0 lead and also singled, raising his average to .444 (4 for 9).

The only real downer for the Rays was the stiff left hamstring that DH Luke Scott experienced after his first at-bat Sunday, prompting him to be pulled early and listed as day-to-day. Scott was 3 for 4 Saturday with three RBI and a double.

For the weekend, the Rays drew 98,569 fans — their third-largest home-opening series. And though two of those fans reached over the right-field wall to catch balls and draw interference calls, replays showed their neither ball would have been a home run. The umps properly ruled the hits by Longoria and Pena doubles, even though Maddon quizzed head umpire Joe West about why he wouldn't review the Pena play Sunday after reviewing Longoria on Saturday.

"I asked Joe West if he would bet his Easter eggs on that, and he said, yes, he would bet his Easter eggs on it, so that was pretty severe," Maddon quipped. "And I took that as a validation that it was a good call."

In the end, it made no difference thanks to work of the Rays' birthday boy.

He came within one out of becoming the first pitcher to throw a shutout on his birthday since Doug Drabek did it in 1995. But after Hellickson walked Swisher with two outs in the ninth, Maddon decided not to tax the arm of his young star any further. Fernando Rodney came on and knocked down a hard grounder by Raul Ibanez, tossing the ball to Pena for the final out and his second save of the season.

Maddon couldn't have been happier with Hellickson's outing, especially since it gave the bullpen — heavily worked Saturday night — a much-needed breather.

"Jeremy was not attempting to be too fine with his fastball away from left-handed hitters," Maddon said. "I thought he challenged the lefties more, and off that his change-up played well. He threw some curveballs, but primarily stuck with his fastball today, which I liked a lot. I thought he and J-Mo were on the same page and had a nice little back and forth."

Hellickson was pleased, too, even though he missed a complete game. "That was a good birthday present right there," he said. "I felt really good out there commanding the strike zone. I wanted to throw more strikes than I did, but I made good pitches when I needed to."

Hellickson is in line for some more birthday goodies; his parents will no doubt bring some along when they see him this week in Detroit. But it'll be hard to top the present he gift-wrapped in pinstripes and personally delivered on Sunday.