by Adam Sobsey
DBAP/ DURHAM---Yesterday I threatened to need an infinite number of words to describe Durham's surreal, 10-9, 14-inning win over Gwinnett. Today, I could do it in two: Jeremy Hellickson. The 22-year-old Iowan, who has been excellent since his callup from Double-A Montgomery in July, had his best start of the season and led the Bulls to a 4-0 win over the Braves, extending the Bulls' division lead to two games.
In eight sterling innings, Hellickson (pictured) allowed just one hit---a sixth-inning single by Brian Barton---walked Gregor Blanco twice, and struck out 12. On a night when the entire Durham bullpen was exhausted from its 14-inning slog on Saturday, Hellickson not only rested them but put his clamps on the game right from the get-go, serving notice by striking out the side in the first inning.
That was actually the easy part. You've probably seen countless highly touted young flamethrowers blow hitters away for a few innings and then melt down. Truly mature pitchers are steady, and as effective at the end of their night as at the outset. We've seen Hellickson break down a few times right at the end of his starts, allowing late homers just before departing. But last night, when Gwinnett got a two-out baserunner in the eighth inning, Hellickson's last, he marooned the man there. (Not a single Brave reached second base.) That was a sign of maturation from a kid who seems already well beyond his years. His equanimity, his poker-faced ease, and his quiet resolve are as much the reasons for his success as his raw material.
Details on the best pitching performance by a Bull this year follow.
The key to Hellickson's game last night wasn't his 12 strikeouts; high K totals are becoming pro forma for him. He has fanned 61 in 50 1/3 Triple-A innings this year, 32 in his last 20. But as you probably know, not only are strikeouts fascist, they're also uneconomical: they burn pitches, pitches burn innings, and Durham manager Charlie Montoyo didn't have innings to burn, what with his relievers spent from the previous evening.
It was Hellickson's counterpart, Bobby Brownlie, a former first-round draft pick of the Cubs, who wasted his bullets. In the third inning alone, he needed 39 pitches to retire eight hitters. The key at-bat was Fernando Perez's. Elliot Johnson had belted a leadoff double to right field (it missed being a homer by a foot or two). Perez tried to lay down a sacrifice bunt and bunted foul. Bunted foul again. With two strikes, he showed bunt yet again and took ball one. Worked the count full, swung away and fouled off a pitch, and finally walked. After two at-bats in the inning, Brownlie had already thrown 13 pitches.
Reid Brignac tried to do what Perez couldn't---sacrifice---and he, too, failed, squibbing one right in front of the plate. Braves catcher Alvin Colina pounced on it and threw out the lead runner, Johnson, at third. Joe Dillon followed with a foul out to Colina.
Had Perez not walked, the inning would now be over. But with two outs, up to the plate came the guy you just don't want to have to face right now with men on base: Jon Weber. Fresh off his heart-stopping, game-winning, 14th-inning double the previous night, he strode to the plate, looked at a pair of balls (ha ha), and then---of course---doubled. It was his 46th two-bagger of the year. Perez scored. Brownlie, now laboring, walked Justin Ruggiano, and then also walked Matt Joyce to force in a run before getting an inning-ending groundout from Chris Richard.
The inning had been excruciatingly long. Lots of deep counts, lots of Brownlie pacing around the mound. But the thing was, the Bulls had actually scored only two runs, and led just 3-0. Momentum was on their side, but the inning after this one was important.
Hellickson blitzed through the Braves' 2-3-4 hitters with 11 pitches.
Brownlie needed 18 more pitches to get through the fourth inning, his last.
Hellickson retired the Braves in order in the top of the fifth inning on five pitches.
Braves reliever Juan Perez needed 17 pitches for the bottom of the fifth.
Hellickson responded with a six-pitch, 1-2-3 sixth.
Three innings, 22 pitches. In the seventh, he helped himself to 15 pitches, but he put them to good use: he struck out the side again.
And with two outs in the eighth, Hellickson battled Gregor Blanco to a full count before walking him on a close pitch that you could see he really wanted; the mild grimace that flashed across his face when it was called a ball (which it was, a tad low and away) was the closest thing to "emotion" he showed all night. Colina came to the plate. On the 1-2 pitch, Hellickson threw a changeup. "I thought it was a strike," Hellickson told me later. The umpire disagreed. 2-2. Catcher Shawn Riggans visited the mound. "He wanted a fastball away," Hellickson said. Colina was set up for it, having just seen Hellickson's change. Hellickson obliged Riggans. His 107th pitch was a fastball, 92 mph, knee-high, right over the black or perhaps a tiny bit off of it. Colina stared at it. Strike three called. Colina complained, but it was too close to take. Hellickson left to a standing ovation.
And after the game, during his on-field interview with Ken Tanner, he got the shaving cream treatment, all over the back of his neck and his cap. In the clubhouse later, the cap was sitting in the trash can, still covered with foam, perched right on top of the soda cans and plastic plates and a '95 Chateau de la Gardine. I tried to get him to reclaim it as a souvenir before it got buried, but Hellickson smiled and demurred. "I think it's done." (Talk about practicing non-attachment! He should be a Buddhist monk if he gets bored of baseball.) I didn't quite have the heart to take it myself. If I had, I would have presented it to his family, who were in attendance last night. They may have just seen their son and brother take the next, huge step toward stardom.
And in case his arsenal isn't dangerous enough for you, Hellickson told me that he's also working on a sinker. That may seem superfluous right now, but Hellickson is smart enough to know that he'll probably need another weapon in the major leagues. "It's a work in progress right now," he said of the sinker. He would probably have told you that last year about his changeup, which is now, arguably, his deadliest pitch.
Is Hellickson as humble, as dry, as low-key, as savant-like as he seems? He said after the game that he simply threw what catcher Shawn Riggans called, and was quick to compliment Riggans' game-calling: "I probably shook off two pitches [Riggans called] the whole game." He said he was feeling good, he could throw his fastball where he wanted it. And what about its explosive late hop to the plate? "When my arm feels good, it does that," he said, as disinterestedly as if it was a pitch he had been watching someone else throw. He seems less naïf than yogi: when you speak with him, you don't see any trace of his very sharp, very hard competitive edge (he's an Aries, don't forget). And there seems to be no ego present in his relationship to his pitching. The outcome of his work is something over which he professes no claim of control; he's simply trying to concentrate on his motions, his delivery, his precision. You get the feeling that, for Hellickson, what happens after he releases the ball is perhaps catalyzed, but certainly not dictated, by his delivery. "Do your work, then step back": that's from the Tao Te Ching.
But enough with the mysticism. Kid was filthy. Helly was hellacious. U can't touch this. Etc.
Roster moves: Joe Bateman and Calvin Medlock were "assigned" to Double-A Montgomery. Guess who was in the clubhouse last night? Joe Bateman and Calvin Medlock. Both relievers had long outings recently and will be unavailable until probably at least Tuesday. So the Bulls added two new hurlers from Montgomery, Rayner Oliveros and Heath Rollins. Rollins, who is a prospect on the organizational radar, appears in the Bulls' pre-season Media Guide, so there were probably plans to bring him to Durham at some point anyway. What I like about Oliveros, who isn't highly regarded, is that he is a Venezuelan named Rayner O., and the Bulls already have a Venezuelan named Rainer O.
From a look over their Double-A stats, which are in the slightly-above-average range, it appears that Rollins ceded his spot in Montgomery's starting rotation to Oliveros a few weeks ago. I don't even want to speculate on what they'll do in Durham, though, because "there's gonna be some movement tomorrow," Charlie Montoyo said, adding, rather ominously, "We're gonna lose a lot of guys." Andy Sonnanstine is a lock to go to Tampa on Tuesday, and don't be surprised if he's joined then or soon after by any or all of the following: Jeff Bennett (maybe), Reid Brignac (very probably), Wade Davis (certainly), Matt Joyce (quite likely), Joe Nelson (perhaps), Fernando Perez (for sure), Shawn Riggans (almost definitely) and Dale Thayer (very likely). Of especial concern right now is the Rays' bullpen, which is starting to crack a bit; the front office could find a way to reattach Winston Abreu to the 40-man roster if guys like Bennett, Nelson and Thayer can't fill the holes. (Oh, and look for Bateman and Medlock to be added back onto the Bulls' roster on Tuesday.)
Jason Childers and Jon Weber will leave on Tuesday, too, in order to start training with Team USA in advance of their trip to Europe to compete in the Baseball World Cup. So in short, start saying your goodbyes now to your favorite Durham Bulls. A bunch of them won't be back this year, perhaps ever. And if Jeremy Hellickson keeps pitching the way he did last night, we won't be seeing much more of him, either.
Monday's game features the third start by the Bulls' Jeff Bennett. Bennett was pushed to nearly 80 pitches in his second outing, so he should be ready for at least five innings if he has good command. He'll be opposed by Gwinnett's Tim Redmond. Redmond has faced the Bulls three times this year. He has been good twice and awful once. In the awful game, back on May 9, Justin Ruggiano homered off of him twice, and had three for the game. Three months later, at Gwinnett, Ruggiano did not play. Feel free to send telegrams, emails and smoke signals to Charlie Montoyo, c/o the Durham Bulls.