Jeremy Hellickson rises to the challenge

September, 16, 2011
9/16/11
12:16
AM ET


There’s a scene early in the new movie "Moneyball" in which the Brad Pitt/Billy Beane character sits at a big table with his scouts and grimaces as they spout a bunch of timeworn baseball homilies while breaking down talent. Each scout at the table can charitably be described as “grizzled,” and one guy wears a hearing aid and is oblivious to the existence of Fabio.

They’re caricatures, for sure, but that doesn’t make the dialogue any less engaging. One scout observes that a certain player has an unattractive girlfriend (she’s a “6” at best, he claims) and takes that as a sign the player in question “lacks confidence.” And naturally, the phrase “the good face” comes up. That’s the mystical, elusive quality that author Kevin Kerrane cited in his classic homage to the scouting profession, "Dollar Sign on the Muscle." Hundreds upon hundreds of scouts have driven Chevy Impalas down back roads in search of prospects with five tools and good faces.

Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Jeremy Hellickson has the good face. He’s youthful-looking, with an earnest Midwestern quality and fair skin that he takes a razor to once every few days regardless of whether it’s necessary. But when Hellickson is chomping on a piece of gum and cold-bloodedly staring in for the catcher’s sign, the combination of moxie and “pitchability” is a great equalizer. Who needs stubble when you have this kind of stuff?

“You think he’s a little Iowa farm boy, but nothing seems to bother him,” a National League scout said Thursday. “Everything he throws moves and runs like crazy, and he has no fear of the results. The bigger the stage, the more he steps up.”

Fenway Park in mid-September with a packed house in a pennant race is pretty darned big, as stages go. But as Hellickson showed in his contributions to a 9-2 win over Boston, sometimes it’s less a case of rising to the occasion than refusing to bend to the circumstances. Sometimes success is strictly a question of survival.

Hellickson lasted only 5 2/3 innings, but it was enough to inject another dose of hysteria into the AL wild-card race and make him part of some select company: According to the Tampa Bay media relations staff, Hellickson joined Rodrigo Lopez of the 2002 Baltimore Orioles and Brett Anderson of the 2009 Oakland A’s as only the third rookie starter in the past 35 years to win two games at Fenway Park in the same season.

Throw in the home runs hit by Evan Longoria, Casey Kotchman and B.J. Upton, and it ensures two or three more meaningful days of baseball in Boston this weekend. Red Sox fans who show up for the James Shields versus Josh Beckett matchup on Friday will hope for better results than the folks who fled the rain before Joey Gathright’s pinch-hit appearance against reliever Alex Torres in the bottom of the ninth on Thursday.

For what it’s worth, I subscribe to the odds over fairy tales enough to think the Red Sox will hang on to their three-game lead over the Rays and take the wild card. Despite Tampa Bay’s series-opening victory, coolstandings.com gives Boston an 89.0 percent chance of making the playoffs compared with just an 8.2 percent chance for the Rays. In the end, manager Joe Maddon’s team might reflect upon those two losses in Baltimore this week as the season’s pivotal sequence.

Still, unless you call New England home, this Tampa team is easy to root for. The Rays’ roster is cheap and largely homegrown, with Johnny Damon as the resident Buddha figure and guys like Kotchman and Matt Joyce jump-starting their careers in Florida. And you can never discount Maddon’s influence as their manager. One time, I walked into the visiting manager’s office at Camden Yards in Baltimore in May and found him immersed in pregame preparation while listening to Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California.” Seriously, how can you not love a guy like that?

Hellickson blends right into the dynamic as a former fourth-round pick who has paid his dues and taken advantage of his opportunity. He ranks fifth in the American League with a 2.91 ERA and a .212 batting average against this season, and he continues to make a strong case for the rookie of the year award. The last AL rookie starter to finish with a lower ERA was Kansas City’s Kevin Appier, who posted a 2.76 ERA in 1990. Hellickson’s 13-10 record may be so-so, but the Rays have been shut out in five of his starts.

On a night when he lacked his best control, Hellickson went to Plan B and relied primarily on guts. He threw 38 pitches in the first two innings, and took the mound in the third with a 4-0 lead and a mission to go right at the Boston lineup. So naturally Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia fouled off several good pitches before drawing an 11-pitch walk to open the inning. Hellickson was so exasperated after the 36-pitch third, he flung his chewing gum to the ground on his way back to the dugout.

But the kid got better as the night progressed, and he made some clutch pitches and used a lot of imagination against a tough Boston lineup. Hellickson ended the chaotic third inning with three straight changeups -- 80, 79 and 80 mph -- before inducing a bases-loaded groundout by Kevin Youkilis.

Fans in other divisions might get tired of hearing it, but pitching all those games against American League East lineups is an absolute meat grinder. Faced with the challenge, Baltimore’s young rotation imploded this year, and Toronto’s Kyle Drabek needed to go back to the minors for a refresher course. Hellickson has been good from day one.

“It can be done,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said recently. “But it’s not for the weak of heart.”

Hellickson and his Tampa Bay teammates have heart, all right, from Longoria and David Price all the way down to the September call-ups. Contrary to all expectations, we’re 149 games into the season, and it’s still beating.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Dustin PedroiaJim Rogash/Getty ImagesDustin Pedroia just missed, which is more than you can say for the Sox on Thursday.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Comments

You must be signed in to post a comment

Already have an account?