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February 28, 2016

Hellickson gets work in, is ready to lead Phils rotation in '16

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Last week, before he got to work on one of his first days in camp with his new team, Jeremy Hellickson walked across the clubhouse at Bright House Field and hugged his third baseman.

Six months earlier Hellickson was beginning would what be his best start of the season at Chase Field when a fastball got away from him and hit Maikel Franco on the wrist. The rising Phillies Rookie of the Year candidate collapsed to the ground, writhing in pain.

With a small fracture in his left hand, Franco wouldn’t return to the field until the season’s final weekend in October. When he reported to camp last week, Franco said there were no hard feelings.

Still, Hellickson felt he should apologize.

“I gave him a hug and told him, ‘I look forward to playing with you,’” Hellickson said Sunday, after throwing a scoreless inning in the Phillies 8-3 win over the University of Tampa. “He’s a great kid. Great player and an even better person. It was an easy apology. Glad to get that out of the way. We’re going to need him.”

If the Phillies hope to avoid a repeat of last season – when the pitchers they sent to the mound not named Cole Hamels combined for a 5.50 ERA – they’ll need Hellickson, too. And they’ll need the version of him that broke into the big leagues sporting a 3.06 ERA in his first 70 games with the Tampa Bay Rays.

The Phillies traded for Hellickson in mid-November, sending pitching prospect Sam McWilliams to the Arizona Diamondbacks in an effort to add an experienced pitcher to their mostly green rotation. If early favorite Vincent Velasquez earns the fifth starter job this spring, the Phillies will likely begin the season with Hellickson, fellow veteran Charlie Morton, and three other right-handers (Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, Velasquez) that have a combined 28 major league starts.

Hellickson doesn’t turn 29 until the first week of the season. But he’s embracing his status this spring as an older, wiser vet that the younger pitchers and prospects in camp can turn to for advice.

“It’s fun,” Hellickson said. “I was in that position my first couple of years and I’d ask David (Price) and James (Shields), (Jeff) Neimann and those guys all the questions I could and tried to learn all that I could. So I’m trying to take what I learned from those guys and pass it on to these guys. There is so much talent and upside here that it’s fun to be a part of.”

Anyone, in particular, stand out?

“I could name, 10 to 12 guys,” Hellickson said. “I’m not going to name any names, but there’s a lot of them.”

Some of those pitchers will open the 2016 season in the minor leagues and others still have yet to endure their first struggles at the big league level. And every pitcher – even the Cole Hamelses and Cliff Lees of the world – will struggle at some point in the major leagues.

After back-to-back sparkling seasons in the Rays rotation, with a 3.02 ERA in 60 starts in 2011 and 2012, Hellickson saw his ERA balloon to 5.17 in 32 games in 2013. The 2011 American League Rookie of the Year was never was able to re-establish himself in Tampa and was sent to the Diamondbacks on Nov. 14, 2014.

Exactly a year later, he was traded again, this time to the Phillies. Hellickson needed just nine pitches to dispatch the top of the University of Tampa’s lineup in his exhibition debut with the Phillies on Sunday.

“Just facing hitters other than our own is always good,” said Hellickson, who managed to mix in four pitches despite the short outing. “Just getting in game speed, a little competition (is good). I threw a lot of strikes, that was the main thing.”

Hellickson will graduate from Sunday’s one-inning outing to three innings in his next start, and gradually to a regular, full game before the Phillies break camp a month from Tuesday. Along with Aaron Nola, Hellickson is a candidate for the Opening Day nod, something he called Sunday both “an honor” but also something that “doesn’t matter one bit.”

“We’re going to need all five guys the whole year to pitch how we’re capable of pitching,” Hellickson said. “I don’t think it matters who starts it off.”

As he noted, it’s more about how the starters pitch than where they’re slotted the first week for the season. Even if the season doesn’t begin with him, showing off that dependability should, since he’s the de facto leader of the staff.

“I just really need to get back to being consistent,” said Hellickson, who allowed two runs or fewer in 14 of his 27 starts with Arizona last year but had a 4.62 ERA overall. “The last couple of years I felt like I’ve thrown better than what the numbers said at the end. But my bad ones were just really, really bad. I couldn’t stop the bleeding in those big innings. I just had to be better out of the stretch with men on base.

“I have to be more consistent every five days. I can’t go seven (innings) and give up one (in) one game and then give up five (runs) the next. I have to start being consistent again.”

Alfaro impresses

Catching prospect Jorge Alfaro didn’t collect a hit in his first game of the spring, but he did work a walk, knock in a run, and drive in another in the Phillies 8-3 win over the University of Tampa on Sunday.

Alfaro, the lead prospect in the package the Texas Rangers sent for Hamels last July, showed off his athleticism in the games’ first four innings. In the first inning, he beat out a potential 5-4-3 double play ground ball to keep the inning alive, and, in the fourth, he showed off his plus-arm behind the plate in throwing out University of Tampa’s Adrian Chacon at second on a stolen base attempt. (The latter is at about the 50:15 mark of this game feed). 

“The throw to second base was really exceptional. And he runs pretty good for a catcher,” manager Pete Mackanin said of the 22-year-old catcher known for his powerful bat. “He’s the full package.”

Mackanin said right-hander Severino Gonzalez will start for the Phillies in Tuesday’s Grapefruit League opener against the Toronto Blue Jays in Clearwater.