Backs against wall, Rays turn to Hellickson

Backs against wall, Rays turn to Hellickson

Backs against wall, Rays turn to Hellickson
ST. PETERSBURG -- Jeremy Hellickson will be faced with the daunting task of keeping the Rays' season alive when he takes the mound for Game 4 of the American League Division Series on Tuesday afternoon.

The 24-year-old will be attempting to swing the momentum back in Tampa Bay's favor and even the best-of-five series against Texas at two games apiece.

That's a lot of pressure for a rookie starter, but he appears to have full confidence from his manager.

"Everybody's on deck, we'll see how it plays out," manager Joe Maddon said following his club's 4-3 loss in Game 3 on Monday night. "Of course I like Jeremy's abilities vs. this team right here, so one moment at a time. We will be ready."

Hellickson enters the game on the heels of an impressive rookie campaign. In fact, his first full season in the Majors went so well that Maddon sometimes has to be reminded of his overall service time.

Tale of the Tape: Game 4
2011 Regular Season
Overall: 30 GS, 14-9, 3.39 ERA, 57 BB, 126 K
Overall: 28 GS, 13-10, 2.90 ERA, 67 BB, 116 K.
Key stat: Went 4-0 with a 2.64 ERA in five September starts
Key stat: Has allowed three earned runs or less in 25 starts
At Tropicana Field
2011: No starts
Career: No starts
2011: 14 GS, 6-5, 2.54 ERA
Career: 16 GS, 8- 5, 2.51 ERA
Against this opponent
2011: No starts
Career: 1 GS, 1-0, 1.29 ERA
2011: 1 GS, 0-1, 3.00 ERA
Career: 1 GS, 0-1, 3.00 ERA
Loves to face: Casey Kotchman, 0-for- 7
Hates to face: Johnny Damon, 5-for-10
Loves to face: Ian Kinsler, 0-for-4
Hates to face: Josh Hamilton, 2-for-3
Game breakdown
Why he'll win: Pitched six innings and gave up just one run on five hits in last start
Why he'll win: Leads AL with 2.50 ERA since All-Star break
Pitcher beware: Allowed a run on a hit and a walk in 2/3 innings in Game 1
Pitcher beware: Walked four batters in his last outing, a loss, in Class A
Bottom line: First time's a charm?
Bottom line: Rookie off to deft start

The cool and calm demeanor on the mound presents the aura of a player with a lot more experience. The ability to slow things down and stick to a simple approach led to the type of results that have him in the running for the American League Rookie of the Year Award.

Hellickson will now have the opportunity to showcase that impressive skill set in front of a national audience when he gets the ball in the do-or-die scenario.

"I always fail to put Hellie into that group," Maddon said in reference to other rookies. "I just don't, he's different -- the way he has pitched for us.

"He has tremendous ability and skill and he has this wonderful pulse about him that permits him to be as good as he is at this early age. We are fortunate with him and a lot of our other young guys."

Hellickson led all Major League rookies in ERA (2.95), innings (189) and quality starts (20) while finishing tied for second in wins (13). He allowed three runs or less in 26 of 29 outings despite pitching in the notoriously tough AL East.

The 2.95 ERA ranked eighth in the AL and was the lowest mark by a qualified rookie since Kevin Appier in 1990. That number was aided by Hellickson's ability to limit opposing hitters to a .210 batting average, which was the third lowest in the Majors behind only the Tigers' Justin Verlander and the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw.

The Iowa native found a way to handle a heavy workload, but heading into his first postseason start, Hellickson said his arm feels better than ever.

"I feel really good," Hellickson said. "You know, I mean, I think I threw probably 40, 50 more innings than did I last year and I feel better than I did at the end of last year.

"I've got a lot of extra days between starts throughout the year, and that's what the case is this time. So I think that's all helped, and these few extra days will help this time, too."

Hellickson, who will be matched up against Matt Harrison on Tuesday, is no stranger to pitching in big games. Tampa Bay had to rally from nine games back in September to overtake the Red Sox for the AL Wild Card race.

That push for the postseason created an October atmosphere in the Rays' clubhouse last month, and Hellickson relished the opportunity by going 2-0 with a 2.67 ERA down the stretch.

Hellickson also has become accustomed to pitching in tight ballgames. In his 10 losses this season, Tampa Bay managed to score a total of nine runs and was shut out five times.

The former fourth-round pick in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft allowed just two runs in six innings during his only start against Texas this year. He was forced to take a tough loss in the 2-0 game, but it was enough to become familiar with the Rangers' roster.

"I know they are a very good lineup," Hellickson said. "They have a lot of power. You know, a lot of speed at the top of the lineup, too, and I really can't worry about that. I have to go over there and do what I do, and, you know, that's execute -- and hopefully it works out."

When Hellickson starts for the Rays in Game 4, it will be only the 10th time since 1900 that a team has used two rookie starters in the postseason. The 2007 Rockies were the last team, with Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales.

Hellickson will look to follow in the footsteps of Game 1 winner Matt Moore and become the first two rookie starters to win a postseason game for the same team since Wilcy Moore and George Pipgras did it for the 1927 Yankees.

It would be a remarkable accomplishment for a Tampa Bay team that built itself around a young staff.

"I feel fortunate as a steward of these young pitchers to have guys of this ability and make up," Maddon said. "It's unusual, man. It's very unusual, and that's what I said before. The one eye on the present, the one eye on the future.

"Of course this has been a special year, but I want many more special years to come, and a lot of it has to do with the nurturing of our young pitching staff. He really fits that mold extremely well."

The Rays will need another impressive performance from Hellickson if they want to send the series back to Texas for Game 5.

It's a similar situation to what the club has grown accustomed to over the past month on its run to the playoffs, but Tuesday afternoon will be its first win-or-go-home game of the year.

"We're used to having our backs up against the wall," designated hitter Johnny Damon said. "Hopefully tomorrow we get a great pitching performance from Jeremy and hopefully score more runs than they do."

Gregor Chisholm is a reporter for Read his blog, North of the Border, and follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.