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Hellickson happy to have Rays' fate in his hands

After struggling in regular season, right-hander starts Game 4 of ALDS

ST. PETERSBURG -- Even with the Rays one loss away from seeing their season come to an end, Jeremy Hellickson arrived at Tropicana Field on both Sunday and Monday ready to pitch the "if necessary" Game 4.

He went through his normal routine during Sunday's optional workout, and he ventured down to the interview room to speak with the media on Monday, discussing his maddeningly inconsistent season and the next start he believed -- but didn't know -- he'd make.

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As it turns out, Jose Lobaton's heroics on Monday will give Hellickson a chance to pitch on Tuesday, with the Red Sox and Rays set to square off in Game 4 of the American League Division Series at 8:30 p.m. ET on TBS.

This time it'll be Hellickson's turn to toe the rubber with Tampa Bay's season at stake. Win, and it's back to Boston for Game 5. Lose, and let the offseason begin.

"Every elimination game we went into feels like just another game until we get out there and see the crowd and make some plays, and then we're a little more fired up. But we want to be in this situation," Hellickson said. "We know we can win three in a row. It's going to be difficult, but we know we can do it."

First and foremost, the Rays need a strong outing from Hellickson after a season in which they were in short supply. Hellickson's 12-10 record doesn't accurately represent how much he struggled, as he finished with a 5.17 ERA -- the second-highest in the AL and more than two runs higher than his 2012 mark -- and a career-high 1.35 WHIP.

His walks were down and his strikeouts were up, but overall, it was an extremely frustrating season for the former AL Rookie of the Year.

That's why there was some surprise when Hellickson made the ALDS roster, and even more when manager Joe Maddon said he would start Game 4. Hellickson himself admitted that he hadn't done anything this year to earn a spot on the postseason roster, much less in the rotation.

But Maddon is confident that Hellickson will be more effective after having a little extra time to rest. Hellickson hasn't pitched since Sept. 27, when he gave up six runs (three earned) and took the loss in Toronto. A week earlier he threw 2 1/3 strong innings in the Rays' 18-inning win over the Orioles.

"We just think, first of all, when he's rested, he throws the ball pretty well," Maddon said. "I think with that, you're going to see the discrepancy between his fastball and other pitches. So we like that. ... We just felt confident that Hellickson, with rest, it'll be good."

Hellickson has proven to be better after a longer layoff throughout his career, posting a 2.42 ERA in 17 career starts on six days of rest or more, and that was the case earlier this season as well. The Rays optioned him to the Minors the final week of August, a procedural move meant to ease up on him, and he bounced back by allowing four hits and striking out four in 5 1/3 scoreless innings against the Angels on Sept. 4.

Looking back on that start on Monday, Hellickson remembered he "definitely felt fresh." The numbers show it, too. His fastball velocity was up more than a mile per hour compared with his previous start, and all of his other pitches came in quicker on the radar gun. As a result he induced a whiff on nearly 20 percent of the changeups he threw, compared with less than five percent in that previous start.

"I think you could tell I had a little extra on my fastball, and the curveball was a little better. And I just felt fresh," he said. "Just taking one start off can help a lot. I felt good before I took that week off, but I just felt just a little more fresh and a little better when I came back."

As confident as he may be in Hellickson's ability to bounce back, Maddon said that the 26-year-old right-hander will "of course" be on a short leash, especially considering it's another win-or-go-home game. Hellickson understands that he's put himself in that position, but he's also hopeful that he'll be able to turn this postseason start into a new chapter of his career.

"I've got to be better. It's not fun what I did the last two months and the first two months," Hellickson said. "Like I said, I pride myself in going out there and being consistent, and I was anything but that. It was very frustrating.

"I'm glad it's behind me. Tomorrow is a new beginning, and I can't really dwell on what I did in the regular season too much. It wasn't my best, but I get another chance tomorrow."

And he is grateful for that. He went from not knowing if he'd make the postseason roster to not knowing if he'd receive a start to not knowing if the Rays would win on Monday and give him the chance to pitch the next day.

"We needed that moment," said Maddon of Lobaton's heroics. "It occurred, and we can start looking forward to tomorrow. I really believe Hellickson is ready for this challenge tomorrow. I do. I feel good about it."

So does Hellickson, even with the Rays' fate in his hands.

"I was surprised a little bit," he said. "I know that what I did the last two months didn't sit too well with the guys making the decision. And I was very happy that they still had confidence in me going out there in a playoff game. ... I was surprised. But I'm ready and very excited."

Adam Berry is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry.

Tampa Bay Rays, Jeremy Hellickson