Conrad's homer helps Hellickson, Rays take opener

Conrad's homer helps Hellickson, Rays take opener

Conrad's homer helps Hellickson, Rays take opener
BALTIMORE -- Jeremy Hellickson doesn't have to hear about May 16 anymore.

Before Tuesday, May 16 was the last time Hellickson had recorded a win, a stretch of nine consecutive starts.

"Is that when it was? Oh man," Hellickson said, chuckling and rolling his eyes. "It feels really good. A good team win tonight."

Hellickson allowed only one run and three baserunners in 6 1/3 innings as the Rays beat the Orioles 3-1 at Camden Yards, an important first step in a nine-game road trip against fellow Wild Card contenders.

With the win, the Rays now trail the Orioles by just a single game for second place in the American League East.

"These are big games, all of the teams are in contention," said third baseman Brooks Conrad, who blasted a towering two-run home run in the fifth. "That was a big win for us tonight to start the road trip off on the right foot."

It was also a big win for Hellickson, whose stretch of nine consecutive outings without a win entering Tuesday was the longest by a Rays player in a single season since Matt Garza matched it in 2009.

He allowed more than three earned runs only once during that streak, but hadn't been able to overcome a struggling Rays offense, which had only six hits on Tuesday.

Hellickson did not allow a walk for the first time since April 30, and his three hits allowed tied his April 4 gem against the Yankees for the lowest output of the season.

"[Hellickson] was more aggressive with his fastball I thought in the strike zone, and his curveball was a weapon tonight," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "He was not tap dancing with the fastball. When he's able to really throw, he's got a good fastball. He's got his best fastball, probably that I've seen since I've known him, over his last three or four starts."

Center fielder Adam Jones provided all of the O's offense in the fourth, blasting a fastball down the heart of the plate 445 feet into the Rays' bullpen beyond the left-center-field fence.

The O's had another chance to push a run across in the sixth, after Nick Markakis smashed a double off the top of the wall in right with one out. But Hellickson retired J.J. Hardy and Jim Thome on groundouts, lowering his opponent's batting average with runners in scoring position to a meager .162.

"I just have to get ahead of guys, and I did a good job of that tonight," said Hellickson, who threw 15 of 22 first-pitch strikes.

With the win, Hellickson moves to 5-2 with a 2.25 ERA in his career against the Orioles.

The righty's start was the latest in a string of good outings for Rays pitchers, who have posted a 1.44 ERA with 23 hits, 13 walks and 60 strikeouts in the past five games.

Closer Fernando Rodney put that stretch in danger in the ninth, walking J.J. Hardy and Jim Thome with one out after allowing only five walks over his first 43 2/3 innings this season.

Adam Jones looked poised to make it three in a row, getting ahead in the count 3-0 before Rodney struck him out with three consecutive changeups.

"The 3-0 punchout on Jones was probably the biggest play of the night," Maddon said.

"I feel good with the changeups," Rodney said. "It feels good when I can throw it back-to-back-to-back. They're looking for a good pitch they can drive, but if you've got good location, no matter what pitch, that's going to be difficult."

Matt Wieters was up next and struck out swinging at another changeup, stretching the Rays' bullpen's scoreless streak to 19 consecutive innings.

"They've been awesome," Hellickson said of the 'pen. "They've been great all year, and they were good tonight, too."

Orioles starter Wei-Yin Chen looked equal to the Rays pitching for much of the night.

Tampa Bay hitters struggled to make solid contact until Conrad, starting for the first time since July 7 and mired in a 2-for-30 slump with 18 strikeouts, slammed a hanging slider over the left-field fence to give the Rays a 2-1 lead in the fifth.

"Brooksy stepping up like he did right there, I know he's going to sleep pretty well tonight," Maddon said. "This is the kind of guy that's never going to quit, and you definitely appreciate that about him.

"He has struggled through some moments, but that was obviously a big moment for him tonight, and for us."

With the Rays struggling to score runs in recent weeks, contributions from unexpected sources like Conrad can be invaluable.

Maddon praised Conrad's ability to be ready at a moment's notice and produce in limited at-bats, a skill he'll likely be using even more after the Rays acquired Ryan Roberts on Tuesday.

"We have several guys who play sporadically and when they do step up like that, it makes a huge difference," Maddon said.

"That's what needs to happen to get some wins here," Conrad said. "Guys off the bench have to come in and do their job, and things like that have to happen for us to continue to win games."

Jeff Keppinger had two of the four hits off Chen, including a bloop RBI single to right in the sixth that gave the Rays a 3-1 lead and pushed the first baseman's batting average against lefties to .458.

Sam Fuld notched a bunt single in the seventh, scored on Conrad's homer after walking in the fourth and even stole a base in his first game back after undergoing right wrist surgery in March.

Fuld said he was "surprisingly calmer" than he thought he would be in his 2012 debut, working deep into counts and staying relaxed even as he tinkered with opening and closing his batting stance between at-bats.

"I told him he was the catalyst walking off the field," Maddon said. "He's kind of comfortable to watch out there. You know that he's going to give you a good game of baseball whenever he plays."

Greg Luca is an associate reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.