Sometimes it's not just about establishing the fastball.
Jeremy Hellickson came out firing. He worked the outside edge of the plate to Jose Reyes, getting him leaning, forcing him to battle off pitches. He found Ryan Hanigan's mitt on the bottom outside corner of the plate time after time, and eventually, when he came back into the zone, he popped Reyes up. It was a good start.
Jose Bautista hammered a curve at the bottom of the zone for a single, because Jose Bautista is very good. Edwin Encarnacion worked a walk (one of four he would work tonight) despite being pitched tough, because Edwin Encarnacion is very good. But bracketing those two sluggers, Hellickson struck out both Melky Cabrera and Adam Lind with well set up back-foot curves to notch a clean inning. I wasn't sure if this was by design -- hiding his best pitch for when he needed it -- or because he didn't have a feel for it, but Hellickson only threw one changeup in the first inning. Whichever it was, the pattern continued for the rest of the game, probably to Hellickson's detriment.
In the second, Hellickson kept to the same script, only this time it didn't work as well. Once more he pounded the edges of the zone with his fastball against Danny Valencia. He threw one curve, which Valencia fouled off, and one changeup in the dirt, which Valencia spit on. Then he tried to come down and inside with the fastball, but the pitch was neither down nor inside enough, and Valencia dropped the bat head on Helly's mediocre fastball and cranked it over the left-field wall. Later on in the inning, Josh Thole nearly did the same, but Matt Joyce made a running grab just shy of the left-field cutout.
The Rays answered in the bottom of the second when with one out, James Loney managed to wait on a knuckler and slap it the other way for a single. Yunel Escobar took a walk, and David DeJesus was hit on the hand to load the bases. After getting up in the count 3-1, Ryan Hanigan inside-outed a fastball to plop it into short-right field between three Toronto fielders, scoring one run. Kevin Kiermaier hit another short fly ball -- this time to left -- that luckily for the Rays needed to be fielded by the shortstop running out into the outfield rather than by the outfielder running in. Yunel Escobar alertly took advantage of Reyes's momentum and tagged up to score on the play. Unfortunately, Dickey was able to baffle the Rays for the rest of the game, and Hellickson was not able to make the slim lead stand.
He gave it up in the very next half inning. Against both Reyes and Cabrera, Hellickson once more worked the bottom of the zone (mostly with his fastball). When he went to his curve, though, their eye level was already down, and they were each able to put a curve near the bottom of the zone into play with authority, setting runners on first and third. An infield hit, chopped by Jose Bautista deep into the hole between shortstop and third base, brought Reyes home.
One inning later, Reyes iced the game. Two Blue Jays at the bottom of the order reached base via infield hits. Now facing the Jays' leadoff hitter for the third time, Hellickson stuck with the same fastball-heavy approach he had used all game. The result was eerily similar to the Valencia at bat, only from the other side of the plate. Hellickson tried to come down and in, but he didn't get down or in far enough. Reyes dropped the bat head and easily cleared the right-field wall for a three-run homer.
I know that it's important to establish the fastball. I know that Joe Maddon says that the best pitch in baseball is a well-commanded heater. I know that for anything else to work, the hitter must respect number one. Still, I found Hellickson's mix peculiar. He mostly seemed to place his fastball where he wanted to, and he often put the Blue Jays hitters on the back foot, but out of his 87 pitches he threw it 59 times, and it didn't really seem to set up much else. His curve ball (thrown 16 times) had some success, but it was also put in play with authority. And Hellickson's usual best pitch, his changeup, only made 12 appearances all night. What's the point of setting a batter up if you don't then sit them down?
The Bright Spots
There were two good performances from the Rays' September callups. Steve Geltz faced four batters and struck out three of them with his electric rising fastball (he walked Encarnacion). Had Maddon gone to Geltz one batter earlier, this might have been a very different game.
After Geltz, Brandon Gomes pitched two and two thirds scoreless innings, striking out two batters and allowing none to reach base. His problem at the beginning of the season was an over-reliance on his new cutter that he had no ability to command. Tonight he threw the cutter only twice, both times for strikes. Instead he relied once more on the low-90s fastball that he used to work his pitches off of. As many of you know, I've been predicting a breakout for Gomes for some time, and I took this appearance as evidence of a more promising approach.
Some other notes:
- David DeJesus just came off the disabled list from a fractured left hand. In his first at bat today, an R.A. Dickey knuckle ball swept up and in and caught him right on the first knuckle of the index finger of his left hand. Not that you can be mad at Dickey, but DDJ did not seem pleased.
- Later on in the game, Dickey hit Yunel Escobar with a first-pitch fastball. As BA pointed out, first-pitch fastballs from Dickey is rare, and there may have been some intent. Yunel sure seemed to think there was by the begrudging look he gave the mound. If that was in fact some unprovoked 77 mph headhunting, than shame on Dickey and shame on the Blue Jays. Not classy.
- The Jays added a mop up homer against Cesar Ramos. Ho hum.