Rays vs. White Sox, game 1: Chris Sale and two bad innings doom the Rays

Jeremy Hellickson blows a bubble with my heart, and then bursts it. - J. Meric

Two bad innings mar an otherwise splendid Jeremy Hellickson start.

Chris Sale is something of a mythical beast for Rays fans. He's tall and odd looking, he delivers 95 mph fastballs and breaking balls that must sweep at least four feet from a funky, low arm angle, and in the past he's proven himself very adept at striking out Rays' minor leaguers (15 last May). A St. Petersburgian could be forgiven for going into this game without much hope for a victory. Two runs against a pitcher like Sale is pretty much all that can be expected. After that, it's up to your own starting pitcher to make those runs stand up.

Unfortunately for the Rays, Jeremy Hellickson, while at times beastly himself, is more enigmatic than mythic (think of a Cheshire cat always appearing and disappearing). When he's there, he's a joy to watch, attacking hitters with three quality pitches. When he's not, you can tell, even before the results go irreparably bad. He misses by too much so that batters aren't even tempted to swing and then he serves up meatballs. Tonight he showed both aspects in the same game.

Hellickson threw 111 pitches over six innings, striking out eight batters while walking four and allowing five hits. If you remove his first and sixth innings, his line would read as four innings pitched, 55 pitches, one hit, one walk, six strikeouts. You take the bad with the good, but that doesn't mean you can't grit your teeth at what might have been. Mythology aside, here's how the night actually went.

Desmond Jennings left his bat in the dugout to start the game and walked on six pitches. Ryan Roberts made good contact, sending a fly ball straight back into center, but the excellent fielding Dewayne Wise was able to track it. Ben Zobrist hit a groundball to the second baseman, Jeff Keppinger. Keppinger’s best chance at a double play was to tag Jennings as he ran and then throw to first, but Jennings was alert. He stopped his run and drifted back toward first. After a moment, Keppinger decided to throw to first anyway and try for the tag double play at second base, but Jennings beat the throw. In retrospect, Kepp should have just ran Jennings back to first base and taken the lead (and fast) out. Longoria hit a soft liner into left that wouldn’t have scored many runners, but was easily enough for the speedy Jennings.

Jeremy Hellickson could not hold the lead in the bottom of the second, though. His command was off and he frequently missed catcher Jose Lobaton’s glove by over six inches. He presented Alejandro De Aza with a fastball up and De Aza hit it hard, straight back over Jennings’s head for a double. He then left an elevated changeup in the zone to Keppinger, who lined it into the left-center gap for a double of his own. Alex Rios walked on four pitches, and Adam Dunn hit a fly ball off the end of his bat into center that could not advance the runners. Paul Konerko, the most dangerous hitter in the Chicago lineup, knocked a hard liner into left that gave Kelly Johnson the opportunity to make a play at the plate. Johnson’s throw was online but not quite strong enough, and Jose Lobaton needed to come forward of the plate to collect it. Keppinger was able to slide aroundpast Lobaton’s diving tag attempt. Conor Gillaspie then hit a sac fly to stretch the lead to 3-1.

In the top of the fourth inning, the Rays got on the board again when Lobaton crushed a 1-0 elevated fastball on a line and over the wall to left. Lobaton had a good game overall, hitting the home run, working a walk, and getting fortunate with a broken bat bloop single. He also did a great job blocking Hellickson’s curve in the dirt all game. Lobaton may not be on many (any) all-star ballots, but let’s not give in to hyperbole at the trading deadline in our wish for an upgrade. Lobes is a major league caliber player, and bringing in a middle of the road veteran is no guaranteed upgrade.

In the bottom of the inning, the Sox threatened once again when Gallispie earned a six pitch walk. Hellickson threw Alexis Ramirez a good inside fastball, but Ramirez has very fast hands, and he was able to turn on the pitch and line it into the left field corner. Once again, Johnson’s arm was going to be tested with a play at the plate, but this time he played the carom well, and hit the cutoff man Longoria right on the money. Longoria turned a quick relay and threw on-target to Lobaton blocking the plate to get the runner.

In the bottom of the sixth inning, bad Hellickson reappeared (or good Hellickson disappeared, if you liked the earlier image and want to stick with it). As he walked Alex Rios on five pitches, it was clear to the pessimistic observer that he’d lost command again. Next up was Adam Dunn, and Hellickson presented him with a couple hittable pitches before Dunn finally succeeded in hitting one of them, a fastball down but over the plate. As is very often the case when Adam Dunn gets a hit, the ball left the yard, flying well out to right center. Hellickson continued to struggle in the inning, walking one more batter and getting two outs in full counts. He recovered to pitch one more inning, which the Rays’ bullpen will appreciate, but the damage was done, and the White Sox and their high quality relief corp were now out of reach.

Additional notes:

  • Hellickson really attacked Alejandro De Aza’s back foot. In the second inning, he started with a good frontdoor two-seam fastball that De Aza took for a strike. After a fastball away, Helly gave him two straight curves in the exact same spot as his opening fastball to strike him out swinging. Hellickson had thrown him the same type of curve in his first at bat. That’s pretty clearly the hole in De Aza’s swing the Rays are looking to exploit.
  • Chris Sale is very deceptive, even on television. When he throws that big, sweeping backdoor breaking ball to a righty, I never know whether it’ll be a strike or a ball until just before it arrives. Can’t imagine what that’s like to hit against.
  • Lobaton hit a home run, and then someone gave him ice cream again (a bar this time). For his physique, it’s probably good he’s not a power hitter.
  • I'm fine with the decision to play Sam Fuld over Matt Joyce today. Sale was going to own most any lefty Maddon might feed him, and Fuld has a small strike zone and considerable value in the field. I'm not sure I agree that Kelly Johnson should have been playing over Joyce. Yes he has a more narrow split, yes my projections think he's good for 10 more points of wOBA against Sale, and yes he has decent range in the outfield. But Joyce is probably still a better fielder overall, given Johnson's inexperience, and he has a far superior arm. If Joyce is playing left field in the first inning, Keppinger is out at the plate standing up.
  • Dewayne Wise plays shallow in center field and goes back on the ball well, covering a lot of ground. He may not be much of a hitter, but he’s a pleasure to watch field.
  • Brandon Gomes continues to look good. His pitches have nice, disparate movement, and he made several White Sox (including Paul Konerko) look silly as he struck out the side in the eighth inning.
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