Jeremy Hellickson had to work through his 18th start with the Phillies on Wednesday afternoon, pitching into trouble, pitching out, fighting with his location, always trying to make a great delivery from the stretch.
It isn't an easy way to pitch, but being a starter for the Phils can be trying in many ways. Hellickson needed 92 pitches to scuffle through six innings. He gave the team a chance to win, however, which is just about all manager Pete Mackanin can ask of his staff.
Hellickson left trailing by a run, but the Phillies tied the game, and then later won it with a pair of home runs to beat the Braves, 4-3, and win their third straight series. Considering they hadn't won a series in the previous 11 they played, this constitutes a hot streak. With one more series remaining before the All-Star break, the Phils have won 10 of their last 13 games.
That's great - a lot greater than losing 22 of 26 in the death spiral of late May and early June - but the end of the rainbow could arrive in three weeks with the trade deadline. It's possible, perhaps even likely, that Hellickson and closer Jeanmar Gomez, both of whom are 28, could be packaged for prospects. Both would be attractive to contending teams and, recent results notwithstanding, the Phillies aren't one of them.
"We certainly have players that other teams like, but I also like the fact that they're helping contribute to this team," general manager Matt Klentak said this week. "We're in a good stretch right now, and we don't really want to pull the rug out. We'll just have to wait and see."
Hellickson has held opponents to three earned runs or fewer in 13 of his 18 starts, which is good enough to have earned a winning record. On the Phillies, he's 6-6 with a 3.92 ERA. For his career, Hellickson is 55-54 with a 3.93 ERA. So, consistency isn't his problem. He's a solid, back-of-the-rotation starter in the mold of a Joe Blanton. Six innings, three runs, go get 'em, guys.
"He was exactly what we were looking for in this first half, and he's really stabilized our rotation. Gives you a good six innings, sometimes seven, throws strikes. He's done a hell of a job," Mackanin said.
The job here might almost be over, though. Hellickson arrived in a November trade with Arizona, and it's possible he'll be relocated eight months later. In the interim, however, he's been a good example for a starting staff that has a 21-year-old (Zach Eflin), a 22-year-old (Aaron Nola), a 23-year-old (Vince Velasquez), a 25-year-old (Jerad Eickhoff) and a 26-year-old (Adam Morgan).
"It's part of being a competitor, part of being a pitcher. You've got to bear down and execute in big situations," Hellickson said. "You don't want to be that guy that goes out there and takes the L or gives up some runs. It's contagious, for sure."
Mackanin has a calendar on his office wall, too. He knows the trade deadline, and he knows how fragile his team's resurgence might be. A missing piece here or there, and it could fall apart again.
"It's part of the game. Last year, we made trades, and it was a big transition, a big deal," Mackanin said. "In Hellickson's case, I'd hate to lose him. But if they made that trade, we'd get something back we really like in return. But you'd hate to lose a guy like that who sets the tone for the rest of the staff."
Hellickson is circumspect on the subject. He's happy with how the first half has gone and, as a competitor, it would be surprising if he didn't want to be where all the games are important and the competition is focused on this season. But he's not looking out the door, and at least it's been a little easier on the pitching staff since the Phillies started hitting again. They have scored 72 runs in their recent 10-3 stretch.
"We just try to go deep as we can and give them a chance to score runs. We've been doing that for a while," Hellickson said. "We kept our confidence up and kept working. I knew [the offense] was going to come around, and they have. This is a young team that loves to compete."
It is a team that has been having fun for a couple of weeks now, after a long period of having very little at all. The way the Phillies are constructed at the moment, good things should be savored, because they are unlikely to last.
Jeremy Hellickson's career with the Phils might not last much longer, either, but if not, it's been a good one. He showed them, as he did on Wednesday, that you can still win even when you aren't great. That's an excellent lesson for a team that is rarely great but sometimes wins in spite of that.