People keep questioning Jeremy Hellickson. But he has made huge strides in 2012 to follow up his AL Rookie of the Year performance in 2011 and he has proved himself to be a dependable and at times dominant pitcher for the Rays. Hellickson was matched up against Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, a pitcher widely recognized as one of the best in baseball. Hellickson was ready to go neck-and-neck with Hernandez and turn a King Felix win into a pitchers’ duel that took 12 innings to be decided.
Hellickson worked around 2 hits in the first inning, but he got burned in the 2nd. Hellickson made a mistake to Mariners catcher Miguel Olivo in the second inning, throwing a 3-2 cutter with no bite that stayed up in the zone and Olivo drilled it, slamming a solo home run to give the Mariners a 1-0 lead. But the Rays would answer in the bottom of the inning, stringing together a Brandon Allen single, a B.J. Upton double, and a Sean Rodriguez RBI single to tie the game before Hernandez stranded a pair of runners in scoring postion. Evan Longoria singled with 1 out in the 3rd for the Rays, but on a 3-2 pitch to Luke Scott, Scott swung and missed and Longoria was gunned down trying to steal. But that wasn’t the least of the Rays’ problems. Longoria injured his left knee as he slid into the second base bag and exited the game with “left knee soreness” (reported by Marc Topkin and others). The Rays have to hope that he’ll be able to return to action soon.
The Rays had another threat in the 5th. With 2 outs, Ben Zobrist walked and Carlos Pena followed with a long flyball to right-center. The Mariners outfielders could not get it and it bounced on the track. Zobrist was about to score easily. But the ball bounced into the stands, forcing him to head back to 3rd. Evan Longoria would have been the following batter. But instead, the player due up with the player who the Rays put in to replace Longoria, Elliot Johnson. Johnson was retired in a way he would like to forget, on a two-strike bunt attempt that didn’t even come close to being a fair ball, and the foul bunt with two strikes counted as a strikeout to end the inning.
Hellickson wasn’t overpowering on Monday night, allowing 6 hits in his 7 innings of work including the home run to Olivo. But he struck out 7 while walking none, throwing 68 of his 97 pitches for strikes and getting 6 groundouts to 3 flyouts. Hellickson pitched very well and refused to wilt with Hernandez up against him. Jake McGee worked around a hit to pitch a shutout 8th for the Rays.
The Rays got one final threat against Hernandez in the 8th as he walked Carlos Pena and Elliot Johnson, but Hernandez got a strikeout and a pop-up to strand them as well. Hernandez went 8 innings, allowing 1 run on 5 hits, striking out 9 while walking 4. 71 of his 106 pitches were strikes and 10 of his 13 in-play outs were on groundballs. Although his control wasn’t great, the results were certainly as good as usual for Hernandez. But Hellickson and McGee fought him to a draw.
Fernando Rodney pitched the 9th for the Rays and things got a little dicey. With 1 out, Kyle Seager singled and was pinch-ran for by the speedy Munenori Kawasaki, and Miguel Olivo followed with a single to give the Mariners 1st and 3rd with just one out. Michael Saunders then hit a soft groundball towards the mound as Kawasaki motored home. Rodney fielded and shuffled the ball to Jose Molina, who made contact with Kawasaki before he scored, leading to the “out” call from the umpire. Molina may have in reality only hit Kawasaki with his elbow, not his glove which held the ball, and the Rays may have gotten an enormous break. In any event, Rodney got ex-Ray John Jaso to line out to center to end the inning.
With 1 out in the bottom of the 9th against Tom Wilhelmsen, B.J. Upton hit a tapper between home plate and the mound. Miguel Olivo fielded it and made an athletic leaping throw but the throw was off-line as Upton reached. Olivo landed awkwardly following his throw and injured his groin, causing him to leave the game. The Mariners’ use of John Jaso as a pinch-hitter the last half inning loomed large as the M’s had to take their DH Jesus Montero and move him to catcher, causing the Mariners to lose their DH, replacing Olivo’s spot in the batting order with the pitcher in the game. Wilhelmsen was able to get out of the inning on a double play groundball of the bat of Sean Rodriguez to send the game into extra innings.
In the 10th, Wade Davis worked around a single to pitch a scoreless frame, and a walk did not Wilhelmsen as his shutout inning, including a strikeout of Elliot Johnson for the third out, extended the game into the 11th.
Jesus Montero led off the 11th for the M’s. Davis got behind him 1-0 before leaving a sinker down and mid-out. Montero showed why he was such a highly-touted prospect, flicking his wrists and drilling a long flyball to deep right-center that carried out for a go-ahead home run, the first run in the game since the 2nd inning, to give the Mariners a 2-1 lead. Davis was able to get out of the inning without further damage, with Johnson making a nice barehanded play on a Kawasaki bunt and Davis recording two strikeouts, but the Rays would have to rally off Mariners closer Brandon League in the bottom of the 11th.
Luke Scott put the tying run on quickly for the Rays, lacing an opposite-field double to left-center to begin the inning. Jeff Keppinger pinch-ran for him. Matt Joycecame to the plate and hit a towering flyball to deep right-center but it stayed in the yard, advancing Keppinger to third. Chris Gimenez, who had replaced Molina, came to the plate and hit a sharp groundball but right at third baseman Alex Liddi, turning into a groundout for the inning’s second out. B.J. Upton was the Rays’ final hope. League got behind 1-0. He then left a fastball up and Upton stuck his bat-head out and hit a looping line drive over the head of second baseman Dustin Ackley and into right-center field to tie the game at 2. Sean Rodriguez grounded out to end the inning.
J.P. Howell entered the game for the Rays to pitch the 11th and worked around a walk to Ackley to pitch a scoreless frame. The Rays had another opportunity to walk-off. With 1 out, Ben Zobrist walked and Carlos Pena followed with a line drive single off League to give the Rays 1st and 2nd with 1 out. Up came Elliot Johnson to the plate again, 0 for 2 with a walk in the game after replacing Longoria. And on a 1-0 pitch, Johnson saw a fastball mid-out and on an inside-out swing hit a liner over short into left field. Zobrist rounded third, waved home by Tom Foley. Chone Figgens’ throws to the plate was right on the money, but Zobrist slid in just ahead of the tag as the Rays won the game 3-2, winning in walk-off fashion.
Howell (1-0) earned the win while League (0-2) took the loss. The Rays battled this one out, with Hellickson and the relief corps giving them gutsy inning, getting out of jams, and after going down in the 2nd and the 11th, the Rays responded with runners in the bottom halves of those two inning before Johnson came through with his game-winning hit in the 12th. It was a satisfying and well-deserved win for the Rays as they moved to 15-8, the best record in the AL East and second only to the Texas Rangers in the American League. The Rays continue their 4-game versus the Mariners with another game tomorrow night as rookie Matt Moore goes for the Rays against Hector Noesi. Hopefully these next three games can be just as exciting- and end with the same result.