Sometimes, in my darker moments, I catch myself questioning Jeremy Hellickson. "Is he really any good?" my despair asks, as he walks Ricky Nolasco. "Next Maddux?" it mocks as yet another curveball floats in too wide to be enticing to a right handed batter. "Do you think you’ll be a prospect forever?" it crows, trying to ruffle Hellickson’s stoic demeanor (Helly, for his part, pretends to be unfazed by my persistent voice of doubt).
If you find yourself asking these, too, this was the game to watch. Maddon likes to say that pitching starts with fastball command, and today, Hellickson’s fastball command was great. He painted the corners, mostly the outside corner, all night. And when he did miss, it was almost always close – there’s a real difference between a pitch the batter can give up on and one that forces him to make a difficult decision.
For an example of just how consistent with Hellickson was with his location, take a look at the top of the second inning. Michael Brantley lead off and lined the first pitch he saw to the wall. Matt Joyce misjudged the carom and turned it into a triple, setting up an early jam. Hellickson went to work on Santana with a backdoor curve called for a strike. He tried to duplicate the pitch, but missed just slightly wide. The next pitch was a fastball up and away, followed by a cutter at the top of the zone that Santana fouled off. Finally, Hellickson returned to his spot down and away with a fastball just off the plate that Santana offered at but couldn’t touch.
The next atbat was strikingly similar in location and setup, if not in pitch selection. Helly first gave Travis Hafner a change just off the outside bottom corner. When it was called a ball, he moved it up an inch for a called strike. He followed that pitch up with a fastball up and in, a cutter at the top of the zone that was fouled off, and then returned to that outside bottom corner with a curveball that Hafner could only weakly ground to second base, not scoring the run. Helly then finished off the inning by jumping ahead of Damon and then getting him out in front with a changeup down and away that he bounced softly to Carlos Pena at first. It was fantastic pitching, and representative of the whole game.
For the seventh inning, the Maddon turned the game over to the bullpen. And why not? The Rays had a one run lead, and the bullpen has been one of the team strengths all year. The first reliever in was Kyle Farnsworth, who seems to have supplanted Joel Peralta in the reliever rankings to claim the third spot in the order. He ran the count full to Kotchman, before Kotch grounded out to short. Next, against Jack Hannahan, Farnsworth got ahead in the count with a slider down and in for a strike and a 95 mph fastball on the outside edge. He followed that up with another fastball just a bit up, but then put Hannahan away swinging with another nasty slider down. So far so good.
Next, Farnsworth got ahead of Shin-Soo Choo before inducing a chopper to Pena at first. Pena, who had already made a fantastic diving defensive play earlier in the game, was playing well back and should have had no trouble on the play. But his first step was in, and that turned it into a tough play. A high hop handcuffed Pena, and the third out of the inning bounced into left field. Asdrubl Cabrera followed that up with a liner into left for a single. Farnsworth hadn’t thrown but one bad pitch, and seemed in control, but Maddon wasn’t taking any chances, and he brought in Jake McGee to slam the door. Which he did.
McGee started the dangerous Jason Kipnis out with a fastball strike on the outside corner. Then he threw another in almost the same spot but had it called a ball. Unfazed, McGee brought his fastball in slightly and elevated it, inducing a foul to bring the count to 1-2. He threw the fourth fastball of the count on the outside of the plate but further down in the strikezone, freezing Kipnis and striking him out to end the inning. But it was called a ball. Four pitches later Kipnis sent a hard grounder up the middle to tie the game.
Maddon came out to talk to his players, and then diverted over to the umpire, getting himself thrown out almost immediately. Part of his beef surely came from the last inning when Joyce was called out looking in five pitches, none of which were strikes, and all of which were further outside than the pitches not given to McGee against Kipnis. After Cleveland tied it up, McGee never got the cat back into the bag, giving up a single and then a homer to Carlos Santana to bring the score to 8-4, and essentially end the game.
- I have a theory that Zobrist sees the ball especially good against pitchers with wide release points. Today he walked every time he faced Masterson (three times).
- As I mentioned, Hellickson really had good fastball command today, and really worked the ball down in the zone. The other side of the coin is to be able to put hitters away, an he didn't get his secondary pitches quite to do that, but that's fine. Of the two aspects, better to have command and control the count.
- The Rays put 20 men on base today to Cleveland's 18. They just didn't get that timely extra base hit.