DURHAM When you’re three years removed from being named the American League Rookie of the Year, you don’t expect to be back in the minor leagues.
For Jeremy Hellickson, a step back was part of an effort to step forward.
Hellickson, a right-handed pitcher, took the mound for the Tampa Bay Rays for his first appearance of the 2014 MLB season when the Rays hosted the Kansas City Royals on Tuesday night. After the 2013 season, Hellickson had surgery on his right elbow to remove bone chips that had been causing discomfort.
For the past 30 days, he rejoined his former team – the Durham Bulls – under the tutelage of pitching coach Neil Allen and manager Charlie Montoyo as he finished the last leg of his rehab assignment.
Although the Rays have deemed Hellickson ready to go, for the majority of his Port Charlotte and Durham assignments it did not appear as though he would make it back on schedule. Before last Thursday’s start, Hellickson had an 0-4 record and a 9.00 ERA.
“It does get frustrating,” Allen said. “Because you know what you’re capable of or else you wouldn’t be making that big money that you’re making.”
“And you wouldn’t be considered a pretty big part of that starting rotation, which at the beginning of the year was supposed to carry (the Rays) through the American East.”
But this was not the first time Allen has been around a talented pitcher returning from an injury. As pitching coach of the Staten Island Yankees in 2000-03, Allen coached two Yankees legends through their injury stints in the minors.
“When I was in New York, I had Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte,” Allen said. “I had those guys come to play through rehab. They’re all there because of the same thing: they’ve had a little bit of minor surgery.”
The road back for Hellickson, 27, was was filled with frustration and shaken confidence.
He had never been a pitcher known for overpowering hitters. His fastball normally clocked in around the low-90s. His bread-and-butter was his control and command, and he had neither at the beginning of his time in Durham.
“A big reason he was struggling was because he was missing spots,” catcher Curt Casali said. “He’s a pitcher that relies heavily on hitting the glove and the corners and getting hitters off balance.”
“In that sense, it’s definitely a little harder than somebody who can come in and throw 97, just trying to throw it over the plate. I thought he did a good job of progressing things where he needed to be to get back to the big leagues.”
Then came Thursday’s start against the Gwinnet Braves. With his 30-day stint reaching its end Sunday, the game had a lot riding on it. He had to show he was back in major-league form or he would likely have to spend another 30 days with the Bulls.
A 6-foot-1, 190-pound Des Moines, Iowa native, he allowed two runs in 52/3 innings, striking out four and stranding nine Braves en route to his first victory of the season. Even bigger than the win and lowered ERA (7.23), Hellickson regained his command, and with it came his confidence.
Of his season-high 86 pitches thrown Thursday night, 55 went for strikes.
“(Thursday’s game) wasn’t even close,” Montoyo said when asked to compare the start to Hellickson’s previous four. “He located all his pitches. His curve ball, he was throwing for a strike. Before, he didn’t have it. You look at his fastball today, everything was sharper.”
Now Hellickson finally has his opportunity to rejoin the Rays and attempt to recapture the magic he had in his 2010 International League Most Valuable Pitcher and 2011 AL Rookie of the Year campaigns.
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