Washington Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo insisted all winter that he was happy with the starting depth in the organization, and he maintained that stance even after the Nats’ added Jeremy Hellickson to the mix in mid-March.
“We like the rotation we have,” Rizzo told reporters, as Hellickson got started and A.J. Cole and Erick Fedde competed for the fifth spot in the rotation in Spring Training.
“This just adds another layer of depth for us.”
Hellickson, 31, struggled in 2017, with a 5.43 ERA, 5.77 FIP, 47 walks (2.58 BB/9), 96 Ks (5.27 K/9), and a .250/.312/.497 line against over 30 starts and 164 innings pitched for Baltimore and Philadelphia, but Rizzo said they spotted some things they thought might help him to bounce back.
“We found a couple of differences in his delivery that I know he’s worked on in California and he’s taken here,” Rizzo said, as quoted by AP reporter Chuck King. “Hopefully he can make that little adjustment.”
Hellickson worked out at the Nationals’ facilities in West Palm Beach over the last few weeks in an extended Spring Training environment, and came up Monday night to make his first start with Washington in the series opener in Citi Field.
Nats’ skipper Davey Martinez had history with Hellickson from the time both spent in Tampa Bay. He talked before the game about what he was looking for from the veteran righty in his debut with the Nationals.
“He’s going to go out there and compete, and the biggest thing for him is to stay out of the big innings,” Martinez said. “He’s very smart, and he knows how to do those kinds of things.
“He’s a strike thrower, hopefully he goes out there and gives us six, seven good innings, and we’ll go from there.”
At his best, Martinez said, Hellickson, “... can elevate his fastball. He throws cutters. He keeps hitters off-balance throughout the game. He’s really good at that.”
Hellickson gave up a run in the first when Matt Adams misplayed a liner to left, leaping at the wall but failing to make the catch, and Todd Frazier followed with an RBI single, 1-1.
A second run scored in the third on an RBI double by Frazier that made it 2-1 NY, though a well-played relay from Adams to Trea Turner to Matt Wieters cut a second runner down at the plate.
In his first competitive outing of the season, Hellickson got up to 88 pitches before he was lifted with a runner on and two out in the fifth, and Shawn Kelley retired Frazier to end the inning.
Jeremy Hellickson’s Line: 4.2 IP, 7 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 3 Ks, 88 P, 61 S, 3/1 GO/FO.
Martinez said after the Nationals’ come-from-behind, 8-6 win, that he made the decision to get Hellickson out of there based mainly on his pitch count.
“We wanted to keep him about 85 pitches, which was perfect,” Martinez said.
“I thought my stuff was good,” Hellickson told reporters. “Command was good, for the most part, and I was getting ahead of guys, I just have to put them away I think. I don’t know how many foul balls there were, but there [were] a lot.”
He said he still felt strong when he was lifted, though he seemed to agree it was the right time to get out of there.
“I felt good,” he explained. “I haven’t really gotten to 90-plus [pitches] yet, so I mean 85 was the number, but obviously I would like to go a little deeper, just that’s a good lineup. They foul off good pitches and make you work, and I think the good thing was I was just getting ahead with everything.”
“I thought [Hellickson] threw the ball pretty dang good,” Bryce Harper added, after he went 2 for 4 with a solo homer, two-run single, and a walk in the win.
“I thought his sinker looked good,” Harper said. “Changeup looked great, he trusts his stuff and he commands it. That’s going to be a huge asset for us.”
In order to make room on the 25-Man roster for Hellickson, the Nationals optioned Trevor Gott to Triple-A, and moved A.J. Cole, who started twice, struggling in the first outing but improving in the second, moved to the bullpen, where he’ll work as a long reliever for the time being.
Martinez said the conversation was Gott was difficult, after he’d put together a solid Spring and was off to a strong start.
“That was a tough conversation, but he gets it,” Martinez explained. “We just need to make room and I told him, ‘Hey, just keep working and at any given time you’ll be right back.”
As for Cole? How was that talk?
“It was really good,” Martinez said. “He was very accepting. He said he’ll do whatever it takes to help the team. And he pitched really well, but I’m glad the conversation went really well, and he’s all for it, and we need him down there. We’re lacking a long man, and he’s a guy and he fits perfectly.”
Cole gave up a leadoff triple and two-run home run in his first relief appearance of the year, as the Nationals fell behind 6-1 in the seventh before the comeback began.
Cole got out of the inning, and ended up getting the win when the Nationals rallied in the top of the eighth while he was still the pitcher of record.