Jeremy Hellickson acknowledged he experienced some anxious moments leading up to his Orioles debut Wednesday night. He'd transitioned to a new team before, but never during the season, and never thrown into a playoff race at the trade deadline.
The Orioles acquired Hellickson from the Philadelphia Phillies on Friday with the hope that his veteran arm could help stabilize the team's rotation. The Orioles' starting pitching struggles have been the main reason why they've played inconsistently since mid-May and were on the fringe of the playoff picture not long ago.
But the Orioles rotation seems to have found its footing, and in his first start with his new team, Hellickson did his part to continue that momentum, throwing seven scoreless innings in the Orioles' 6-0 win over the Kansas City Royals. The win was the Orioles' fifth straight and completed a three-game sweep of Kansas City.
"Last night I had some nerves," Hellickson said. "But once I got out there, I felt fine. I've been traded before, just not in season to a team that is playing as well as we are, that has a chance to make the playoffs. So, just a little nervous last night but I felt really good today."
Hellickson's Orioles debut didn't scream dominance, but frame by frame, he kept the Royals off the base paths by pitching to contact and letting his defense work behind him — facets that have been instrumental for Orioles starting pitchers' success over the past several years.
His game score of 73 was his best of the season in 21 starts, besting his previous best of 69 in a six-inning, one-run effort at the Arizona Diamondbacks on June 25.
Hellickson overcame a 35-minute rain delay with two outs in the third inning, throwing the equivalent to an inning inside to stay warm, and after the rain, he returned with the same composure.
"Not a whole lot seems to bother him," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "He's always been pretty consistent with his emotions, it seems like. I don't know him that well. But from watching him in the other dugout and now watching here, it's pretty matter of fact. He knows what he's got to do and who he is and what he's not."
Hellickson, 30, hadn't pitched in 11 days. He was scratched from his previous scheduled start with the Phillies on Friday before the trade became official, then got into a minor car accident on the way to the airport.
He went from a Phillies team sitting in the National League East cellar, 23½ games out of first place entering Wednesday, to an Orioles team that has suddenly shown renewed life and is 2½ games back of the American League's second wild-card spot held by the Royals. He brought a track record of success in the AL East from his early days with the Tampa Bay Rays, and a resume of durability at his three previous career stops.
Hellickson, who will be a free agent at the end of this season, joined an Orioles rotation that owned a collective 5.73 ERA before Wednesday's start — worst in the AL and second worst in the majors. But since the club acquired Hellickson, the team's starting pitchers have allowed just three earned runs over the Orioles' past five games spanning 35 2/3 innings, posting a 0.76 ERA.
Hellickson continued the trend, allowing five hits — all but one were singles — while mixing a five-pitch arsenal that varied in velocities from 74 to 91 mph, as he tried to pitch to contact.
"We got to see him do it a lot to us, especially at their park," Showalter said, referring to Hellickson's early years with the division-rival Rays. "You get older and get a little wiser and know more is not always better. He had good command of all his pitches. They couldn't take one out of play. A little cutter here and there and located his fastball. He and Caleb [Joseph] worked well together. The changeup [was good]."
Hellickson retired seven of the first nine batters he faced before heavy showers arrived. He returned after the delay and put the first two batters on base before retiring seven of the next eight batters.
He threw 18 of 27 first-pitch strikes, working ahead in the count. But Hellickson didn't miss many bats, drawing just three swings and misses on the night. He had just three strikeouts and put 20 balls in play, drawing six groundouts and seven flyouts.
"Yeah, it was really impressive," Joseph said. "Seven innings, couple hits, no runs in itself is impressive, but add in a rain delay. I'm not sure he's ever pitched during a rain delay and come back before, so what a night, what a debut. It's what we expected. We know it's hard to do, so it's something I know he was excited about too. Just being back there, it's a lot better being back there than being on top of the plate trying to hit him, that's for sure. I'm glad he's on our side."
Hellickson's curveball was a weapon Wednesday. He threw the pitch 24 times in his 94 pitches, the most he has thrown it all season, and had seven called strikes — including four times on the first pitch of an at-bat — along with two swinging strikes and five outs on the pitch.
"I think the biggest thing was the curveball tonight," Hellickson said. "I don't think I've thrown that many this whole year, so it was good to get that over 0-0 when I needed to and I think I had a good two-strike one tonight, too."
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He ran into his most trouble in the sixth, when a leadoff walk to Melky Cabrera and Eric Hosmer's ensuing double put two runners in scoring position without an out.
But Hellickson escaped the inning just seven pitches later as he induced a first-pitch pop-up from catcher Salvador Pérez, struck out Mike Moustakas on three pitches and got an inning-ending groundout to first from Jorge Bonifacio.
"I think I got that popup, and then, I don't strike out a lot of guys, but it was nice to get strikeouts in those situations," Hellickson said. "That was big, but just trying not to do too much. If they get a run there, we're still ahead 3-1 and I ended up getting out of it with nothing."
Hellickson retired the Royals in order in the seventh, walking off the mound to a warm ovation from the Camden Yards crowd after ending his outing retiring 12 of his last 15 batters.
"He'd be the first to tell you that when you're operating like that it makes it a lot easier," Showalter said. "We talk about that a lot. You know that every pitch has a chance to be a strike and every pitch has a chance to be put in play."