Insider: Hellickson, Rays Swept At Home

If you are looking for an example of the rollercoaster ride that is the Major League Baseball season look no further than the last week for the Tampa Bay Rays. On Monday, the team was riding high after a three-game sweep of the Miami Marlins vaulted them to the American League’s best record (35-25). On Thursday, the New York Mets completed a thorough three-game beating of the Rays which left Tampa Bay third place in the AL East (35-28) and has left some seeking cover from the falling sky.

There is no way to sugarcoat the last three games for the Rays; they played a poor brand of baseball. The pitching was roughed up for 29 runs, the defense continues to have difficulty completing routine plays, and the hot-and-cold offense plated just nine in 27 innings against the Mets. That said, a few of the issues that plagued the Rays in this series have been problems for a while.

When players like Carlos Pena, Evan Longoria, and Luke Scott are producing like they did in April, the offense looks fantastic; however, when they go into prolonged slumps like Pena has been in for several weeks or miss time like Longoria, and now Scott, the flaws of lesser players become magnified. The once stellar defense continues to be plagued with errors from replacement-level players and out-of-position regulars which have only added pressure on the already-underperforming lineup. Evan Longoria will cure some of these issues, but he alone cannot fix them all. Some of it will be corrected with natural regression from within, but Andrew Friedman is likely considering external options as well.

The one constant for the Rays has been their starting pitching, but even they struggled against the Mets. Alex Cobb deserved better than the five earn runs he was saddled with in the opener; however, the combined 15 runs charged to David Price and Jeremy Hellickson over the last two games were well earned.

Price pitched well for the first four innings on Wednesday before his outing quickly eroded in the fifth and sixth innings. He’s stuff was still strong (8 strikeouts) but his command was lost quick, resulting is a line-drive laser show by New York in the sixth. Much like his poor start against the Red Sox in early April, the rough outing is the exception more than the rule against the Rays’ lefty.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Hellickson failed to reach the fifth inning for the second time in a week. In fact, he did not even complete the fourth against the Mets. While he was lucky enough to escape Miami with just one earned run despite seven walks, he took it firmly on the chin Thursday when New York hung eight runs on him in 3.2 innings. The 2011 AL Rookie of the Year allowed nine hits including three home runs while walking one and striking out no one. In his last two outings he has allowed a combined nine runs on eight walks and 14 hits in eight innings.

For a pitcher like Hellickson, who survives on command and control, the slightest disruption can lead to unfavorable results. In his last two starts, the 25-year-old has struggled with fastball control. In his first 11 starts, he threw his fastball for a strike 62% of the time. In his last two, that percentage has dropped down to 56.

The lack of fastball control has seemingly had a negative impact on his changeup as well. Over the past two starts, Hellickson has a swing-and-miss rate of 21% on his offspeed pitch. That number was over 30% coming into the last two games. It is imperative that he locates the heater well as his secondary pitches feed off his ability to throw strikes with the fastball

Prior to his start against the Mets, Hellickson tossed two bullpen sessions instead the normal one in between starts. From that, we can tell he is obviously battling through something whether it is mechanical or mental. The good news is he is surrounded by a number of bright pitching minds including pitching coach Jim Hickey as well as fellow starter James Shields. Whatever is plaguing the young right-hander is likely to be identified and hopefully corrected sooner than later.

The same Rays looked unbeatable last weekend looked utterly hopeless during the mid-week series that followed. While they certainly were not going to run the table after sweeping the Marlins, they also will not remain winless after being swept by the Mets.

There are noticeable flaws with this current group; some more correctable (Hellickson) than others (Pena). There is also still plenty of good baseball to come for this club just as there will be some more bad. Once again, that is just the rollercoaster that is baseball and the Rays have 99 rides to go before we know just exactly how it will end.