After the Tampa Bay Rays' biggest victory of the season, a stunning, 16-run explosion at Fenway Park on Monday night, the unassuming little guy snaking silently through the clubhouse was the game's winning pitcher, Jeremy Hellickson. You know the name, you might not know the face, but the one that appears on the big screen at big league ballparks features a blank stare. "We kid with him," Rays catcher Kelly Shoppach said. "We say it's his smile."
Rays general manager Andrew Friedman smiles about that, saying, "Jeremy is devoid of emotion. The first time I met him, when we drafted him, that's how he was. I figured he would change as he moved through the system. He hasn't. When he got to the big leagues, he was the same way. I remember the first hitter he ever faced up here. Denard Span hit a hard, one-hopper at him. Jeremy caught it, took a nice deep breath and threw a strike to first. Nothing bothers him. That's what we love about him. His makeup is off the charts."
His stuff is really good, too. That combination has made Hellickson, 24, one of the best pitching prospects in the game, good enough for the Rays to trade Matt Garza to the Cubs in the offseason in part to make room in the rotation for Hellickson. "That trade was bittersweet, we love Garz, no one is going to replace him in the rotation," Hellickson said. "He has done so much for our team. But it's good they have confidence that I could do the job."
That confidence came from a minor league career that was spectacular: a 49-16 record, a 2.71 ERA, 137 walks and 634 strikeouts. In his first full season in pro ball, he had 16 walks and 96 strikeouts. In his second year, he went 13-3. In his third year, he walked five and struck out 80 before being moved up again. After 5½ seasons in the minor leagues, he made it to the big leagues in 2010.
"When he got here," Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey said, "he was ready. He was prepared.''
In his first major league start on Aug. 2 of last year, Hellickson retired the first 10 batters he faced, the first pitcher to do that since Chien-Ming Wang in 2005. Hellickson beat the Twins that night, ending their eight-game winning streak -- the first pitcher, making his major league debut, to end a winning streak of that length since the Yankees' Randy Sterling in 1974. It was a spot start for Hellickson. He went back to Triple-A Durham after the game but was soon back with the Rays, and proceeded to become the first pitcher in the live ball era (1920 on) to throw six-plus innings and allow three hits or fewer in each of his first three starts in the major leagues.
"I went in with the same mentality that I had in the minor leagues," Hellickson said. "A lot of guys change things when they get here; they stop attacking hitters. I kept the same mentality."
The Rays eventually put Hellickson in the bullpen for the rest of the season to not overwork him. "I understood what was going on," he said. "I was happy to be there. I wish I'd have done better."
He did well out of the 'pen. He seems to do well in any role, any time.
"He has tremendous poise; he was very comfortable when he got here," Hickey said. "Early on, he got in some situations, but he worked out of them. The reason he has been successful is that he can throw a changeup in a fastball count, and it is an outstanding changeup. It looks look a four-seamer, it looks fat, then boom, the parachute comes out."
Hellickson added a cutter this year to go with the changeup, curveball and a low-90s fastball.
"He has such great command because his delivery is so clean and efficient with minimal effort," Hickey said. "That goes hand in hand with the poise. He is able to repeat his delivery."
All this comes from his upbringing, a classic, soft-spoken Midwesterner from Des Moines, Iowa, the son of a forklift operator. The whole family, including "grandmas and grandpas," Hellickson said, drove to Detroit and Kansas City last year to see him pitch. They will be back this year. Hellickson lost his first start of the season 5-1, even though he struck out 10 in 5 2/3 innings. He won his second start, beating the Red Sox 16-5, despite walking five and striking out only one in 5 1/3 innings. Still, he joined Rodrigo Lopez (2004 Orioles) as the only rookie starters to beat the Red Sox in April in Fenway in the past 30 years.
He has such great command because his delivery is so clean and efficient with minimal effort. That goes hand in hand with the poise. He is able to repeat his delivery.
”-- Rays pitching coach Jim
Hickey on Jeremy Hellickson
"That was the worst I've ever seen him," Shoppach said, "and he still found a way to win."
Now, if only someone can find some color to his personality. "Stand in line," Rays manager Joe Maddon said with a smile. "He's the same way with all of us. But we love him that way."
Does anyone have a good story, a good anecdote to tell about Hellickson?
"I think he's from the same home town as [umpire] Tim McClelland," Maddon said.
It is true. "I played basketball against [McClelland's] son, and he was a baseball coach; our team played against his," Hellickson said. Last season, McClelland was the second-base umpire in a game in which Hellickson pitched. Did the two guys from Des Moines talk at all during the game?
"He said, 'Hi,'" Hellickson said.
And what if McClelland is the plate umpire someday for a game in which Hellickson pitches?
"If he gives me the knees and the corners," Hellickson said, "I'll be happy."
And then he smiled. A really nice smile.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.
Follow Tim Kurkjian on Twitter: @Kurkjian_ESPN