OAKLAND, Calif. — Maybe if Jeremy Hellickson didn’t walk the first batter he faced in his last start, and maybe if he didn’t allow three first-inning runs or a third-inning home run or walk another batter in the fifth, maybe Hellickson would have pitched deeper, at least finished the fifth inning.
Hellickson has yet to do that in any of his first three starts since returning from offseason elbow surgery.
He has a chance this afternoon when he faces the A’s in the finale of this three-game series at the O.Co Coliseum.
“First of all I got to throw more strikes,” Hellickson said. “Getting ahead and executing better overall. Obviously walking the first batter the last game was never something you want to do. I just couldn’t find it that inning after that. I think I settled down pretty well after that, but I think the main thing is get ahead and attack the zone more.”
Hellickson hasn’t finished six innings since last Aug. 16 against the Blue Jays. In 10 starts since then, he’s averaging a little more than four innings an outing. That doesn’t include his start in October’s ALDS against the Red Sox, when he failed to record an out in the second inning.
“It’s not like a lack of confidence in him,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “I just know what’s going on now, and we got to get him beyond that. It’s almost like he’s teetering and you got to get him beyond that one moment, and all of a sudden there’s that breakthrough and heads up, he turns back into what he had been a couple of years ago.
“Coming off surgery there’s all kinds of do-dads going on mentally. I want him to go deeper in the game, absolutely. Under a different set of circumstances, probably would have by now.”
Hellickson said he understands the motives behind Maddon’s quick hooks.
“I haven’t pitched well. I haven’t really given him a reason to leave me out there,” Hellickson said. “Obviously I’d like to get a chance to work out of my own jams and go deeper into games. With the bullpen we have and every game is a must-win, there’s not really time to wait around. I got to do better early and give him confidence to leave me out there in the game.”
Hellickson’s elbow was an issue last season as he tried to pitch through the pain caused by loose bodies floating in the joint. Surgery corrected that.
Now Hellickson is dealing with hitters who have been facing major-league pitching since April, while he is only three starts into his season.
Even with a healthy elbow, Hellickson might not be as ready to pitch in the majors as he thinks he is.
“That’s a good way to put it,” he said. “I’m healthy. I feel strong, but you can’t emulate a big-league game in all the rehab starts I did. Getting out there and facing big-league hitters is different. I just got to keep working and get back to my old self here, soon.”
Maddon said Hellickson is throwing well. The velocity on his fastball is up and his change-up looks like it normally does. Maddon said he would like to see Hellickson throw his curveball more. It was the curveball that caused the pain in his elbow.
“More than me trusting him, he’s got to trust himself,” Maddon said. “That’s what it comes down to. He’s behind, there’s no doubt about that. He’s been out that long and guys have been playing all year, that really matters. He didn’t have that many starts coming into this thing, and relatively soon I would like to believe he’d be getting into the swing of things — or the swing and miss of things.”