PORT CHARLOTTE — It was the second inning and the bases were loaded and no one was out, and Jeremy Hellickson's night was over.
He had retired the first three batters he faced in Game 4 of the AL division series and allowed the next three to reach base. Facing elimination and with no room for error, Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon quickly went to the bullpen, and Hellickson, once one of the most reliable starters in the rotation, made the long walk to the dugout.
“The first two innings of that game was my season,” Hellickson said. “First inning was great, I felt great. Then I go out the second inning and throw eight straight balls. Before you know it, I'm out of the game.”
Hellickson is the one member of the Rays rotation no one is talking about this spring, other than to mention his Jan. 28 elbow surgery as the reason Cesar Ramos, Jake Odorizzi and Erik Bedard are vying for the final spot in the rotation.
The surgery was to remove bone chips in Hellickson's pitching elbow. He said there was not an issue in 2013, but others in the Rays clubhouse wonder how they could not have submarined Hellickson's year. The chips were on the outside of the elbow, the part of the joint that endures the most pressure when Hellickson throws his change-up.
“Sometimes you don't realize you're not normal,” pitcher Alex Cobb said.
Said pitching coach Jim Hickey: “I think it probably had an effect on him. I think he wasn't quite right.”
Hellickson isn't certain why he struggled. His mechanics were the same. His curveball was better. His strikeouts were up. In 10 starts from June 2 to July 26, he was 8-1 with a 3.17 ERA. The problem was the 11 starts prior to those 10 and the 10 starts he made from July 31 to the end of the season.
“He had three different seasons,” Hickey said. “The 11 games in the beginning, he was really overall poor. The 10 games in the middle, he was as good a starter as there was, and 10 games at the end he went back to being not so good.”
The inability to prevent the big inning hurt Hellickson during those first 11 starts. He would be sailing along, pitching a shutout then bam. Lead gone, game over.
“A lot of situations where a walk is probably not a bad thing, I tried to be too perfect and threw a change-up right over the plate, and before I knew it, it's four runs in and I'm out of there,” he said.
In late August, Hellickson was optioned to Class A Charlotte, then transferred to Double-A Montgomery. He didn't pitch for either club. The move was to give him some rest and a mental break. He was away from the team for only seven days. In his final five appearances (four starts) of the regular season, Hellickson was 2-2 with a 4.87 ERA.
“It was tough, to say the least,” he said. “I never got down. Hickey and the other four (pitchers) were always there picking me up. A lot of downs toward the end of the year for myself, but we were playing very well, and it's kind of easy to forget about my day and move on.
“It definitely ... some nights that wasn't a fun ride home. It wasn't the best of times, for sure. But I'd come back the next day, team's winning, I got four days to get ready.”
Cobb was impressed by how Hellickson carried himself in the clubhouse.
“Obviously, after a couple of bad starts I saw him gather himself and try to figure out what's going on after the game. Next day, same guy, ready for the next start. Doing what he had to do to get ready for the next start,” Cobb said.
Hellickson said his elbow is responding well to the throwing program. There is no longer any pain. He wishes he was healthy and could begin the season on time. June 1 is his target date to return.
“Hopefully that's part of it,” he said. “Maybe that's something that will help turn it around.”
Cobb is certain that will be the case. He said he is angry at the criticism aimed last season at his teammate.
“Jeremy has had a rookie of the year, a sub-3.00 ERA, a low-3.00 ERA, then he's had one bad year and he's a bad pitcher? That's wrong,” Cobb said. “He's been a consistent part of this staff for three, parts of four years, and people counting him out after one sub-par season is wrong. It's just wrong. The competitor inside of him, he's going to come back and, in my eyes, he'll really show everybody who he is.”
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