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Hellickson: First rehab start 'very encouraging'

Righty tosses three scoreless; likely to make two more appearances before returning

TAMPA -- Helly is feeling frisky.

Saturday night, Jeremy Hellickson took a significant stride toward returning to the Rays' rotation when he made his first rehab start since having right-elbow surgery in January to "clean up loose bodies."

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Wearing a Single-A Charlotte Stone Crabs uniform, Hellickson faced the Tampa Yankees in a Florida State League game. He allowed no runs on two hits and a walk while striking out two in three innings. He threw 38 pitches, 25 for strikes.

Once he left the game, he threw 10 additional pitches in the bullpen before calling it a night.

"Felt great," Hellickson said. "I've been feeling really good the last month or so. Today was no different. Tried to get out there and get the work in and came out feeling really good."

The outing put Hellickson in his first competitive situation since the end of the 2013 season.

"I was pretty giddy there," Hellickson said. "Then I walked on the field and it felt like it was 110 out there. That brought me back down a little bit. I was definitely excited to get back out there in a real game."

If Hellickson does not have any setbacks, he will likely make two more rehab starts before returning to the Rays' rotation.

"I think I'll need two more, probably four [innings] and 65 [pitches] and five and 75 to 80," he said.

Hellickson retired the Yankees in order in the first, including a nice 2-2 changeup to Greg Bird for strike three and the third out.

Dante Bichette Jr. drew a walk on six pitches to start the Yankees' second before Hellickson fell behind, 3-1, to the next hitter, Matt Snyder, who singled to right to put runners at first and second with no outs. Hellickson's fielders then turned a 4-6-3 double play before Hellickson struck out Yeicok Calderon swinging to end the inning.

Jose Rosario singled off Hellickson with one out in the third, but right-fielder Marty Gantt threw him out trying to stretch the hit into a double. Jake Cave flew out to center to complete the inning and Hellickson's outing.

"I threw everything," Hellickson said. "Probably should have used my fastball a little more. I threw everything. Everything felt good."

Ryan Hanigan caught Hellickson Saturday night. The veteran catcher went on the 15-day disabled list on May 28 -- retroactive to May 27 -- with right hamstring tightness. June 10 is the first date he is eligible to come off the DL.

"It was nice to throw to Hanny," Hellickson said. "I think we were on the same page for the most part."

Hanigan said Hellickson "looked good."

"Used all of his pitches and mixed them up," Hanigan said. "Everything was working. Good action on his changeup. When he was missing, he was just missing.

"If anything, he could work on a little better fastball command. Still wasn't too bad, though. Curveball was good."

In addition to catching Hellickson, Hanigan hit a two-run homer in his second at-bat. Of note, Hanigan said he feels ready to come off the DL.

Hellickson, the 2011 American League Rookie of the Year, experienced a rough 2013 season in which he finished 12-10 with a 5.17 ERA, by far the highest of his career. Though he has never attributed his struggles to being the least bit injured, he recently told reporters that his elbow felt "a lot better" than it did in 2013.

"... It wasn't so much pain [last season]," Hellickson said. "Just tight and just kind of wedged in there. Not a lot of mobility. Couldn't extend like I wanted to. I feel great."

The occasional elbow irritation from 2013 returned when Hellickson began his throwing program in Iowa in mid-to-late December. Still, there were some weeks where he felt nothing at all, so he wanted to wait and see how he felt throwing off a mound.

After throwing his first bullpen session on Jan. 15 without a problem, his second session brought pain that was "far worse than anything I felt last year." He said his arm "locked up" to the point where he couldn't even straighten it.

So Hellickson reached out to head athletic trainer Ron Porterfield, flew to Florida for tests and underwent surgery. Dr. Koco Eaton performed the procedure.

The Rays had been counting on a bounceback season from Hellickson, who turned 27 in April. Hellickson posted a 3.06 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP from 2010-12 before his disappointing 2013 campaign.

Hellickson, who avoided arbitration by agreeing to a $3.625 million salary for the 2014 season, would have joined David Price, Alex Cobb, Matt Moore and Chris Archer to form one of the Majors' top rotations. Instead, Hellickson did not start the season with the team, while Moore had Tommy John surgery and will miss the rest of the 2014 season.

"Very encouraging," said Hellickson of Saturday night's outing. "Came out healthy. Got my work in, felt great. I felt really, really good."

That's good news for the Rays on a night when the team could use some positive vibes after taking a 7-4 loss to Seattle.

Bill Chastain is a reporter for

Tampa Bay Rays, Jeremy Hellickson