In debut, Hellickson vaults Rays into first
Righty sent back to Triple-A after hurling seven strong innings
ST. PETERSBURG -- Using Jeremy Hellickson on Monday night felt like uncorking a vintage bottle of wine, then being able to put it back in your wine cellar to season further.
And make no mistake about it, we're talking one expensive bottle of wine here.
The Rays' top pitching prospect blew into St. Petersburg to give the starting staff a breather. Hellickson then went out and made the Tampa Bay brass look like geniuses by holding the Twins to two runs on three hits while striking out six in seven innings to pick up his first Major League win. Approximately 10 minutes after the Rays had finished off their 4-2 win, Hellickson received the news he would be returning to Triple-A Durham.
But oh what a bouquet his first taste left on the palates of the Rays and their fans.
By winning, the Rays moved back into a tie for first place in the American League East, thanks to the Yankees' 8-6 loss to the Blue Jays. Tampa Bay is now 7-1 on the current homestand while improving its record to 66-39 on the season. Meanwhile, the Twins saw their eight-game winning streak come to an end.
Hellickson retired the first 10 hitters he faced before the Twins got something going with one out in the fourth. Alexi Casilla drew a walk. Delmon Young followed with a single to right to put runners on the corners. Jason Kubel's single to right then scored Casilla to tie the game. This is where your normal rookie pitcher realizes he's in the Major Leagues and typically gets that deer-in-the-headlights look before folding.
Not Hellickson, who calmly recovered to strike out Michael Cuddyer, and he didn't even seem rattled when he uncorked a wild pitch in the process, which allowed Young to advance to third. Hellickson simply stared down Jim Thome and struck out one of the great power-hitting lefties of all time to end the inning.
"I think I was more nervous warming up [before the game]," Hellickson said. "Once I walked out there and saw the fans and they started cheering ... I tried to take it like any other game after that first pitch. I just went after that first-pitch strike."
Hellickson made quite an impression on former Rays phenom Young, who is having the best season of his career.
"I faced [Hellickson] in Spring Training this year and saw what he had, and he just came out and pounded the strike zone," Young said. "He showed great composure, didn't get rattled. He just kept attacking the hitter. We all knew he was going to be a big leaguer one of these days."
Other than the fourth, Hellickson allowed a solo home run to Kubel in the sixth, and that was the extent of the damage. He added a scoreless frame in the seventh before leaving to a rousing ovation from the crowd of 17,689.
"Really calm demeanor, totally in control of his emotions," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "He pitches well, with really good stuff."
The Rays' offense came through with 10 hits on the evening, including a 3-for-4 performance by B.J. Upton. Evan Longoria drove in the first run in the third when he poked a single to right field that scored Reid Brignac. The run snapped a 23-inning scoreless streak for Twins pitchers. But none of Tampa Bay's hits were bigger than the one Matt Joyce delivered in a three-run fifth, which felt like a knockout punch.
With two on and two outs, Twins starter Carl Pavano got ahead of Joyce 0-2 in the count. Joyce then battled the veteran right-hander until he finally hit the 12th pitch of the at-bat for a two-run double to left field.
"When I'm going well, I go the other way and use the whole field," said Joyce, who has accrued 12 RBIs during the current homestand. "And that seems to be the key for me.
"Pavano, he has great stuff and he has a great changeup. He made a lot of great pitches. A lot of those pitches I was just trying to fight off -- foul them off or something and get something I could handle. Fortunately enough, on that 12th pitch he gave me something to hit up in the zone. It was a fastball."
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire complimented Joyce for the at-bat.
"That was a good at-bat," Gardenhire said. "Joyce fouled off some really good pitches and maybe wore him down a little bit, but then he got one up and he banged it out to left-center. It was a great at-bat by Joyce. He kept fouling them off, kept fouling them off. Pav made some great pitches to him. The one that he hit wasn't a great pitch -- he got it up and out and over the plate. That was the big at-bat of the night."
New acquisition Chad Qualls started the eighth for the Rays and got two outs before giving way to Randy Choate, who needed just one pitch to retire Kubel on a check-swing popout. Choate got one out in the ninth, and then handed off to Dan Wheeler with a runner aboard. Wheeler got Danny Valencia to bounce into a 1-6-3 game-ending double play.
A big win for the Rays, but clearly, the night belonged to Hellickson.
"You see the makeup," Maddon said. "The makeup really stands out. For a young man to come into this situation, like he did, kind of solidifies exactly what we had thought. ... He's going to be a big part of the Rays' future."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.