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Unleashing Hellickson in the stretch will sorely tempt the Rays


Jeremy Hellickson was a Derek Jeter fan growing up. A big one. Hellickson grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, but rooted for the New York Yankees. He wore No. 2 at Hoover High, where he was a shortstop and pitcher for the Huskies. The name of the Yorkshire terrier he got a few years back: Jeter.

"He was Jeremy's favorite player," says his father, Steve. "He wanted to be Jeter."

Hellickson, the Tampa Bay Rays' latest pitching phenom, may now have the chance to beat Jeter. That is up to the Rays, though. When and how they decide to unleash their Hellboy into the world could very well determine whether they topple the Evil Empire in September -- and October.

An unassuming, undersized, 23-year-old righthander who manager Joe Maddon has described as looking "more studious than athletic," Hellickson has shown, in four impressive major league starts ( 3-0, 2.05 ERA, 25 Ks in 26-1/3 innings) that he might be the Rays' best starting pitcher not named David Price. "For me, he is," says an AL scout. "He's their second best starter right now."

But for the last week, Hellickson has been throwing out of the bullpen a few miles away from Tropicana Field -- at Class A Port Charlotte -- while prepping for a forthcoming stint as a major league reliever, a la Price in 2008. Hellickson will be back in Tampa soon after major league rosters officially expand on Tuesday, but the Rays plan on holding their phenom back. Between starts at Triple-A Durham and for Tampa, he has amassed 145-2/3 innings this season, and the club has good reason to be concerned about the workload of a baby-faced pitcher who logged a total of 114 innings last season at the Double-A and Triple-A levels.

Stephen Strasburg's injury was a harsh reminder of why a young arm is treated with the care ordinarily given to a 1931 Bugatti. How contenders handle their young hurlers in September and October will be fascinating to watch. Workload management is an issue not only for a contender like Tampa, but also St. Louis (rookie Jamie Garcia), Cincinnati (Mike Leake, Travis Wood, new call-up Aroldis Chapman), San Francisco (Madison Bumgarner), and Atlanta (Mike Minor).

Do the suddenly stumbling Padres, who dropped their season-high fifth-straight game on Monday night, push 22-year-old Mat Latos further into red-flag territory -- he has already logged a career-high 149 2/3 innings -- as they try to lock up their division and home field advantage in the National League?

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The Yankees -- who, of course, would greatly prefer to open the playoffs at home as the AL East champs rather than begin their title defense as the wild card and on the road at, say, Texas -- are in a similar predicament with 24-year-old Phil Hughes, who is nearing what many believe is a 180-inning limit that the club has mandated for him.

"A lot of this is more art than science," says an AL executive. "Do you count innings, or should you really count the number of pitches over the year? Is 190 innings suddenly so much worse than 175? Sure, it may be, but we don't know that it is for sure. And what percentage increase from one year to another is a truly risky increase? Even in this day and age, with all these numbers in front of us, no one knows for sure. And if they say they do, they're lying."

Hellickson has the talent to be the Rays' secret weapon down the stretch and beyond, but for now, Tampa's desire to hold its phenom back is clear. Will they, though, keep him bubble-wrapped in the bullpen, even if the division somehow starts slipping away and the Red Sox inch closer? If Rays starters unravel (Jeff Niemann was lit up for 10 runs last week in his return from the DL), would they let Hellickson loose for a critical start or two, perhaps with a playoff berth on the line, or in a do-or-die postseason game?

"It may be the smart thing to do to hold him back, but I'll tell you one thing, Minnesota, or whatever team they get [in the playoffs], would much rather see the kid [in the bullpen] than the prospect of seeing him start in a short series," says the scout.

Says the AL executive, "No one is going to criticize you for erring on the side of caution, that's for sure. Look how David Price turned out. But it would be an extremely tough thing to swallow if you know that one of your best pitchers is on the bench and not out there when a championship is within your grasp."

A control artist with a fastball that tops out at 94 mph and a plus change-up, Hellickson has dominated at every minor league level and has the makeup of a player who will shine under the hot lights of October. His greatest moment as a Hoover Hawk came on the basketball court during his sophomore year: with a berth in the Iowa state tournament at stake, Hellickson stole an inbounds pass with less than 10 seconds left in a tie game before he was hacked as the clock ran out. A sharpshooting point guard, he then stepped to the line. Swish.

"He doesn't say much, he doesn't show much emotion, and he doesn't get fazed by anything," says Steve Hellickson, who operates a forklift in a freezer at a Des Moines shipping company. "Pretty much the most excited I've heard him get this season was when he called [after his second start] and said he walked by Johnny Damon on the field and Damon said to him, 'You know how to pitch.'"

That Hellickson knows how to pitch is becoming abundantly clear. What isn't clear is whether he will -- and should --- make a difference for the Rays in 2010.