Phillies righthander Jeremy Hellickson won the American League Rookie of the Year award and a Gold Glove with the Tampa Bay Rays. He has pitched in two playoff series, but when Hellickson takes the mound for the Phillies on Monday in their season opener in Cincinnati, it will be a new experience. He has never been an opening-day starter.
"The emotions will be high," Hellickson said Saturday. ". . . The adrenaline is going to be flowing and I am going to be really excited and grateful for the opportunity and I am looking forward to it."
Hellickson, who turns 29 on Friday, was acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks in the offseason for minor-league pitcher Sam McWilliams.
On a young Phillies staff, Hellickson has embraced his role as a veteran mentor. He remembers what it was like in his younger days as a member of some talented Rays rotations. Hellickson was the American League Rookie of the Year in 2011 after going 13-10 with a 2.95 ERA. He learned how important it was to lean on veterans for guidance.
"I was a rookie, I had [James] Shields and [David] Price and Wade Davis was over there and all those guys were awesome to me and took care of me, and that is what I am trying to take from it and teach these guys as much as possible, and answer any questions they have," said Hellickson, who was co-winner of the AL Gold Glove with Jake Peavy in 2012.
Unlike many opening-day starters, Hellickson isn't an overpowering pitcher. According to FanGraphs' Pitchf/x, Hellickson's fastball average last season was 90.1 mph, which is close to his career average of 90.7.
"He has a good repertoire of pitches and one of the things he does well, he can soften up when the game is on the line," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said.
By that Mackanin means that the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Hellickson doesn't revert to attempting to blow the ball by hitters in crucial situations.
"He doesn't try to just overpower hitters - which he can't because he doesn't have a 95-mph fastball," Mackanin said. ". . . You have to soften up and throw pitches to contact to get that key ground ball that could get you a double play, and he is like that."
Catcher Cameron Rupp says Hellickson often works backward, so to speak, in keeping hitters off balance.
"In fastball counts, you may see a breaking ball or an off-speed pitch," Rupp said. "But that comes with maturity and being a veteran guy and knowing himself and how he pitches and what it is going to take to get people out."
Hellickson will be opposed by 6-2, 185-pound Cuban righthander Raisel Iglesias, who went 3-7 with a 4.15 ERA in his first season with the Reds last year. He struck out 9.8 batters per nine innings.
The Phillies have not faced Iglesias. Hellickson is one of the few people on the team who has seen him pitch in person. Iglesias had a 1.38 ERA over 13 innings in two outings last year against Arizona.
"He kind of reminds me of El Duque Hernandez, kind of a sidearm [pitcher] with a really good slider, good sinker and he was really impressive," said Hellickson, comparing him to another Cuban, Orlando Hernandez, who pitched nine seasons in the majors.
While Hellickson has earned the opening day start, there is no telling if he will be with the Phillies when the season ends. A free agent after this season, Hellickson could be a candidate to be dealt by the Aug. 1 non-waiver trade deadline if he pitches well for the Phillies.
"I try not to think about it, but at same time it is impossible not to," he said. ". . . I am very happy to be here, to say the least, and I am excited for the opportunity this year."