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March 19, 2017

Jeremy Hellickson to start on Opening Day – but who gets Phillies home-opener assignment?

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. – For the second year in a row, the Phillies are opening the regular season at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. And for the second year in a row, veteran right-hander Jeremy Hellickson has been given the assignment to start for the Phillies on Opening Day.

Manager Pete Mackanin made the official announcement on Sunday morning after the Phillies arrived at Charlotte Sports Park where they’ll take to take on the Tampa Bay Rays. But this hardly was a surprise choice from the second-year manager: he basically made the announcement a month ago, days after camp opening in Clearwater, Fla.

“He opened up for us last year and he had a real good year for us,” Mackanin said on Sunday. “I have a lot of confidence in him. I think he earned the right after last year.”

Hellickson held the Reds to one unearned run in six sharp innings of last year's season opener. He called getting a second chance "a huge honor."

"The atmosphere was awesome," he said Sunday. "It was a good crowd. I think the parade woke me up at nine o'clock that morning. They put on a good show Opening Day. So it's going to be exciting."

Hellickson, who turns 30 next month, went 12-10 with a 3.71 ERA in 32 starts in his first seats with the Phillies in 2016.

With an uncertain free agent market looming, Hellickson declined the chance to test his value on the open market and instead accepted the $17.2 million qualifying offer this winter to return to the Phillies. He will be a free agent (without a qualifying offer, following MLB’s new collective bargaining agreement) after the 2017 season and, thus, a candidate to be moved in a trade prior to the July 31 trade deadline.

Barring injuries, the order of the Phillies rotation had been set up since the team began playing exhibition games last month. Which means Vince Velasquez is in line to start the home opener at Citizens Bank Park against the Washington Nationals on Friday, April 7.

Velasquez had very impressive numbers in 12 starts at Citizens Bank Park last season: 4-3 with a 2.88 ERA, a 1.036 WHIP, and a 4.05 K/BB rate. You may recall the first of those dozen starts he made in South Philly last season.

But before you set up your tailgate, know that only the Hellickson part of the rotation’s order has been officially etched in stone. Because there’s a chance the rest of the order could be thrown off slightly in the coming weeks.

“I think (Clay) Buchholz’s wife is going to give birth during the month of March,” Mackanin said. “I don't know if that's  (going to) enter into it.”

As long as the impending birth of Buchholz’s kid doesn’t force the newcomer to skip a spring start (and even if it does, that’s not a guarantee that it’d affect things, really), the Phillies would line up like this for the first three games of the regular season in Cincinnati: Hellickson, Jerad Eickhoff, and Buchholz.

After Velasquez in the home opener (again, barring everyone’s health and incoming babies), Aaron Nola would take the ball for the fifth game of the season on Saturday night, April 8, at Citizens Bank Park against the Nationals.

Mackanin was asked if he gave any thought to giving the Opening Day assignment to Eickhoff, the 26-year-old who was the team’s most consistent starter in his first full major league season in 2016.

“We talked it over,” Mackanin said. “We just felt (this) was the right thing to do for a number of reasons. I don't feel there's any need to change that. It seemed like the right thing to do. Eickhoff is certainly a darn good starting pitcher. As is Nola and Velasquez and Buchholz.”

For what it's worth, Hellickson would have gone a different way if he had to choose an Opening Day starter among the candidates in camp.

"There's another guy on our staff that probably deserved it a little more than me, in my opinion – that's Eick," Hellickson said. "What he did last year was pretty remarkable for his first full year. I would love to have seen him get it. It would have been awesome but I see plenty of Opening Day starts for him in the future."

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