Jeremy Hellickson had plenty of reasons to celebrate on Sunday. In addition to it being his 25th birthday, the Tampa Bay Rays’ starter held the New York Yankees scoreless for 8.2 innings, leading his team to victory and a series sweep. The 3-0 start ties the best start in franchise history (2002). It was Tampa Bay’s third sweep of the Yankees including the final series of the 2011 season. The Rays have an off day on Monday before opening up the season’s first road trip in Detroit.
Before we get into Hellickson’s day, let’s talk about the offense. For the third straight game, the Rays put a run on the board in the first inning. Following a two-out double by Evan Longoria, Matt Joyce dropped a ball into right field that went past a diving Raul Ibanez for an RBI triple. For whatever reason, Yankees’ manager Joe Girardi decided to start Ibanez – one of the poorer defensive players in the game – in right field and use Nick Swisher as the designated hitter.
Unlike the first two games, there was not an outpouring of offense for Tampa Bay. Carlos Pena continued his hot start, going 2-4 with a double and a solo home run. He finished the weekend with six hits including two home runs and a double. The 33-year-old also walked twice and saw 75 pitches in 14 plate appearances (5.35 P/PA).
Providing the Rays with their third and final run was second baseman Jeff Keppinger. The surprise cleanup hitter on Opening Day, batted seventh on Sunday. Although his success against left-handed pitchers has been well-documented, Girardi left in left-handed reliever Boone Logan to face Keppinger in the sixth inning. On the second pitch of the at-bat, Keppinger deposited a 406-foot solo-shot into the left-field bleachers. The fact that Girardi had right-handed reliever Cory Wade ready in the bullpen made the decision even more curious.
Three runs would be more than enough for Hellickson, who was one out away from being the first Rays’ pitcher to shutout the Yankees. Much like 2011, his peripheral statistics (four walks and four strikeouts) were lackluster, but it was hard to argue with the end result: 8.2 IP, 3 H (all doubles), 0 R.
On Saturday night, Rays’ manager Joe Maddon said he wanted Hellickson to attack the strike zone with his fastball. After Sunday’s game he said Hellickson and catcher Jose Molina were on the same page and became “unpredictable based on his fastball usage.”
Hellickson threw a combined 84 fastballs (four-seam, two-seam, and cut) against the Yankees. The cutter is an evolving weapon the reigning rookie-of-the-year, who threw the pitch 20 times (14 strikes) according to Brooksbaseball.net. The right-hander used a cut-fastball to generate a swinging strikeout of Brett Gardner in the fifth inning.
Despite just four strikeouts, Hellickson induced 13 whiffs (11%) on his various pitches. As has been the case for most of his brief career, he received the highest number of empty swings on his changeup. He threw 21 changeups, getting a swing and a miss on five. Rounding out his repertoire was the curveball, which he threw 13 times (five strikes, two whiffs).
Uncharacteristically, Hellickson generated more outs on the ground than he did in the air on Sunday. Meanwhile, when he was in an early jam, he was able to get one of his trademark pop-ups. With runners on second and third and one out, he switched speeds on Nick Swisher, who popped out to third base for the second out of the inning. In the sequence of pitches, he sandwiched an 81-MPH changeup in between two 89-MPH fastballs en route to the infield fly.
Going against the platoon split has been an issue for Hellickson; however, he held lefties in check on Sunday. The left-handed batters in the Yankees lineup went 2-20 versus Hellickson and were kept off-balance by his switching of speeds. “He changed speeds well” said Joe Girardi. “I don’t want to take anything away from the kid, but I thought we swung the bats pretty well. We lined out a number of times, and that’s going to happen, that’s baseball. But he changed speed well, and he locates well.”
Many predicted a setback for the Rays’ sophomore into 2012. It looks like regression will have to wait another day to catch up to Jeremy Hellickson.