March 23, 2016
CLEARWATER, Fla. – Jeremy Hellickson has heard his name announced for five straight Opening Days with the Tampa Bay Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks. He’s lined up with his teammates each year and has enjoyed taking in the festivities that makes it an unofficial holiday on the sports calendar.
“Just the atmosphere, standing on the line, seeing everything, how Opening Day goes down, you kind of just think, ‘Hopefully I can pitch one of these games some time in my career,’” Hellickson said Wednesday afternoon at his locker stall at Bright House Field.
Hellickson will realize that career goal in less than two weeks. Manager Pete Mackanin announced on Tuesday that Hellickson will take the ball for the season opener on April 4 at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati against the Reds (4:10 p.m.).
"It's definitely a huge honor," Hellickson said.
Mackanin said the Phillies will go with Hellickson, Aaron Nola, and Charlie Morton – in that order – for the season's first series in Cincinnati.
In addition to giving Hellickson the nod for Game 1 of 162, the rotation alignment allows homegrown, former first-round pick Nola the privilege of starting the first home game on the Phillies schedule, on April 11 against the San Diego Padres (3:05 p.m.).
“We kind of like Nola opening up at home – that’s the main thing,” Mackanin said.
Hellickson, the 2011 American League Rookie of the Year, joined the Phillies from Arizona in a trade that sent minor league pitcher Sam McWilliams to the Diamondbacks.
For Arizona, it was a move that shifted salary off their books, freeing them up even more for an active winter that saw them add fellow right-handers Zach Greinke and Shelby Miller, among others. For Hellickson, the second trade in the span of 366 days has presented the opportunity for a fresh start before he hits the free agent market next winter.
“I mean, I’d be lying to you if I said I don’t think about free agency, but I don’t think about it a lot,” Hellickson said. “It’s definitely an opportunity. I couldn’t ask for a better situation to come into. You know, from top to bottom here this organization is awesome. And all of the guys that I’ve got to meet so far, we’ve had a lot of fun. So we’re all just excited for the season to get started.”
In his most recent start of the spring, on Sunday against the Houston Astros, Hellickson threw five no-hit, shutout innings, striking out six and walking three. He has a 1.29 ERA in two Grapefruit League games this spring.
“Nobody is better than the next guy, as far as we’re concerned,” Mackanin said of his rotation. “Hellickson has got experience and he’s been pitching really well.”
Beyond the first three starters, Mackanin said the coaching staff and front office are still waiting to see how Jerad Eickhoff (who made his first Grapefruit League start on Tuesday) progresses in the next 10 days, and how the fifth starter showdown between Adam Morgan and Vince Velasquez shapes up in the same time span. Morgan is on tap to pitch against the Atlanta Braves in Lake Buena Vista on Thursday night.
For the second time this spring, Mackanin was asked about the possibility of a six-man rotation. And, for the second time, he shot the idea down pretty quickly.
“I highly doubt we go to a six-man rotation,” Mackanin said, “because, especially in the National League with only four guys on the bench and with a catcher, and (Ryan Howard) is limited in how you can use him. In the National League, if you pinch hit in the fifth inning, that leaves three guys on the bench and two are limited. We can’t afford to do that. We’d like to do it, I mean, I’d like to have a six-man rotation, but it’s not practical in the National League.”