When Fernando Rodney's 98 mph fastball in on the hands of Dustin Pedroia became an infield popup, Rodney did not point at the ball in the "helpful" way pitchers usually do when they want one of their sure-handed teammates to make the easy play. He didn't even watch as Yunel Escobar took control of the infield and made the catch near second base. Instead he immediately threw both his hands into the air in a spontaneous outburst of joy as he walked toward the plate. He then held the customary notched arrow to his ear a heartbeat longer before letting it fly. It was the exhalation of a relieved man on a relieved team.
But well before Rodney closed out the game to avoid a series sweep at the hands of the Boston Red Sox, Jeremy Hellickson had to put the Rays in a position to win the game. Against the best offense in baseball, Helly pitched like a rookie, and for him that's a good thing.
Do you remember when Hellickson was first called up? He was an exciting prospect who had thoroughly dominated the minor leagues. Despite having to work with a fastball that topped out in the low 90s, he was billed as a control artist unafraid to mimic a power pitcher. He drew comparisons to Greg Maddux, in the form of "it's unfair and ridiculous to compare a rookie to Greg Maddux, but. . ." Once we got to see him, it was obvious what those unfair, ridiculous scouts liked. Hellickson moved his fastball around, up and down and to both sides of the plate. His curve flashed as plus, and the arm speed on his changeup was sublime. Sure he wasn't the most efficient of pitchers, but it was easy to imagine Helly working longer into games once he got some big lead experience under his belt.
Three years in, it hasn't turned out that way. There's been ridiculous, Madduxian levels of ink spilled about what Jeremy Hellickson is or isn't, but tonight's game was a reminder of one of his options: five and a third innings of dazzling, fearless, proactive pitching. Three earned runs on seven strikeouts, three walks, and four hits.
Hellickson hit the ground running in the first inning. Nowadays he can have a tendency to become predictable, working everything away. That's understandable for a pitcher who lacks overpowering stuff, but it's also, in my opinion, the wrong approach. If you only dance on the outside edge, hitters can concentrate on that one area and become more discriminating. But against Pedroia, Helly came straight in and jammed him with a high inside fastball to produce a popup (yes, Helly started the game the same way that Rodney ended it). Next, Daniel Nava reached for a pitch low and away and slapped it weakly, but against the shift for a single. With a man already on, Hellickson clearly didn't wish to give David Ortiz anything to hit. He nibbled around the edges. All of his pitches were close, but Ortiz was never tempted and he dutifully took his walk.
Hellickson came right back inside against the righty Mike Napoli and sawed off his bat at the handle. It would have been an easy double play but Yunel Escobar needed to wait for the bat head to come down low enough for him to hurdle it before making a bare-handed pickup and getting the force at first. Fantastic concentration on Escobar's part.
Hellickson continued his aggressive ways with two outs and runners on second and third. He got Jarrod Saltalamacchia looking outside with a backdoor curve, and then brought the fastball up and in on his hands to record the strikeout. That's how Hellickson used to pitch, and I sure hope today helps him get back to it.
Moving your fastball in and out can only take you so far, though. Later on in the game, Hellickson showcased the pitch that can really make him special. Out of a total of 104 pitches, he threw his changeup 39 times. According to Brooks Baseball, it produced a strike 25 times (64%) and a whiff 13 times (33%). A rate like that is obscene for a pitch that's used that often. It seemed like every single time that Hellickson located his changeup at or near the bottom of the zone, the Red Sox batter would swing and miss. If they tried to hold off, it was called for strikes at the knees. It was titillating.
Of course, not everything went Helly's way. Life is not just changeups and roses. Saltalamacchia was able to drop the bat head to crush a fastball on the inner third of the plate and down, but I'll take that. When Hellickson pitches fearlessly that'll happen, because there's a reason most pitchers are afraid to offer 91 mph fastballs inside. There's also a reason that most pitchers are afraid of David Ortiz. In the sixth inning, the third time through the order, Hellickson threw Ortiz a backdoor curve located a couple inches up from the bottom of the zone and right at the outer edge of the plate. I don't care what Brian Anderson said, that's a good pitch. That pitch in that location is almost never driven. It's either taken, fouled off, or hit on the ground. But Ortiz did drive it, out to left center in the deepest part of the park to draw the score within one. And perhaps remembering Salty's earlier homer, Hellickson also walked him later on in the sixth. Jamey Wright allowed him to come around and tie the game. Still, this was a performance I will take every single time from the Rays' number four starter.
The Rays offense matched the Sox in hits (6), and exceeded them in walks (6-4). I thought they gave good at bats, top to bottom (aside from Ben Zobrist, who went 0-4 and grounded into a double play). David DeJesus, especially, made himself a tough out at the top of the lineup, but really, most everyone battled well and made good adjustments mid-sequence against Jake Peavy, a crafty pitcher who really kept the ball down tonight, and the Boston bullpen.
Evan Longoria got the ball rolling in the second inning when with two strikes he reached for a fastball down and away and lined it up the right field line and into the corner. He ran hard the whole way but when Daniel Nava couldn't field it cleanly, he really turned on the jets and stretched the hit into a triple (Longo's helmet fell off as he accelerated past second in a way that seemed a caricature of a man running fast). Two batters later, Wil Myers hit a grounder sharply up the middle that was too hot for Pedroia to handle, bringing home the run.
In the following inning, DeJesus worked a walk, and then advanced to second when Zobrist hit a ground ball to Napoli that a more sure-handed first baseman would have turned into a double play. Next up, James Loney, a more sure-handed first baseman, connected with a hanging slider for one of his patented deep line drives. It bounced off the top of the wall, and while Loney missed the home run by about a foot, DeJesus scored easily on what ended up as double.
After Saltalamacchia's fourth inning homer cut the lead in half, Desmond Jennings got the run back in the bottom half. Against Myers, the previous batter, Peavy threw almost all breaking balls and Deezy must have gotten a pretty decent look at them from the on-deck circle. Peavy used the same approach to Jennings, spinning him curves sliders, and big, moving cutters. Finally, one of Peavy's sliders hung, and Jennings exploded on it. It was the type of swing that Jennings showcases occasionally and that's possible to dream on. This past week he's looked uncomfortable and out of sync, reaching weakly and swinging late, but when everything lines up for him, it's easy to imagine 15+ homer seasons.
Still, for all their good work, the Rays entered the bottom of the eighth inning tied 3-3. After getting Loney to ground out, Drake Britton was removed (with Longoria due) in favor of the righty Rubby De La Rosa. De La Rosa dropped in a slider at the bottom of the zone for a strike. Then he went back to it again, and while Longo knew he had to swing, he didn't have the measure of the pitch yet, and he fanned to bring the count to 0-2. Now is where De La Rosa made an error. He figured that his slider had worked so well the first two times, so he should go back for thirds. He left it slightly up and Longoria had seen enough. He bounced it off the warning track in left-center field and over the wall for a ground rule double.
Matt Joyce popped out to bring Myers to the plate with two outs. De La Rosa started him off with an 88 mph changeup, and then threw a 97 mph fastball that was over the plate and middle-in. Myers stayed inside the pitch and sent a low fly ball toward the right field line. It landed maybe four inches fair and spun into foul ground, where Nava fielded it before crashing into the side wall, ensuring that he would have no play at the plate.
Yesterday, Rodney held the 3-3 tie. Today he was going to pitch the ninth whether or not they scored, but the Rays gave him one more run, and a lead to hold.
Some other notes:
- In the top of the third inning, we zoomed in on a lady ringing a cowbell app. RIP #TWSS.
- Also, I could have sworn I saw birds flying around for a second in the top of the fifth inning. Can someone who was there confirm?
- Ortiz admired his sixth inning homer for a long time, and then sauntered around the bases like he was on the clock. If we were the type of team who threw at batters for stupid reasons like that, we would be throwing at Ortiz next time around.
- Delmon Young pinch hit against a lefty and showed good and surprising patience in taking a four pitch walk. Each of the balls was a fastball on one of the edges of the plate. They were all potentially enticing, but all correct to take.
- After he allowed Hellickson's inherited run to score in the sixth, Jamey Wright came back out to pitch the seventh inning. He struck out the side.
- Jake McGee was also impressive in relief, striking out two, and getting Ortiz to chop out weakly.