ST. PETERSBURG — Tampa Bay Rays RHP Jeremy Hellickson returns to the mound tonight intent on recapturing the ability to throw strikes and make the big pitch when he needs to make a big pitch. Basically, the same goals as he had in his previous three starts. Hellickson, though, struggled to accomplish both. Add elevated pitches and you have 13 runs in 12 innings during those three starts. “It's frustrating,” he said. “Four scoreless innings and I'm out of the game in the fifth inning. There's a fine line between a scoreless inning and a four-, five-run inning. I just got to keep making good pitches. I haven't been able to do that in big spots.” It has been an uneven season for Hellickson. He had a 5.61 ERA during his first 11 starts when he struggled with his command, especially in key moments. He was dialed in during his next 10 starts, going 8-1 with a 3.17 ERA. Then came the three interleague starts against the Diamondbacks and the Dodgers, and Hellickson is back to trying to command his fastball and avoid the big innings.
“It does sound a lot easier when I say it, but it's not strikes right over the middle of the plate, it's throwing quality strikes, keeping the ball down, not elevating,” he said. “I just have to be able to get back in the count when I don't throw a first-pitch strike.” The good news is Hellickson will face the Toronto Blue Jays. He is 2-0 in four starts against them this season. The Jays will counter with knuckleballer R.A. Dickey (9-11, 4.46 ERA). Snakes alive! Asia, a 20-foot, 115-pound reticulated python that lives at Busch Gardens, visited the Rays clubhouse before Thursday's game. The reaction was what you'd expect — some players ran, some wanted to hold it, some continued to play cards. “Doing my research, 2013 happens to be the year of the snake on the Chinese calendar. I kind of like that thought. We needed a little bit of motivation within the clubhouse, and then furthermore you find out it's representative of risk taking and creative thinking,” manager Joe Maddon said. Maddon felt his team was a little tight after the 0-5 West Coast road trip and was looking for a way to lighten the mood, just as he tried earlier in the season with the penguins, magician, DJ ... etc. Maddon wanted to have Asia visit earlier in the homestand but could only arrange the visit for Thursday. Maddon pointed out that closer Fernando Rodney, OF Matt Joyce and head athletics trainer Ron Porterfield were born during the year of the snake. “I think I'm a horse, and that's next year,” Maddon said. “Heads up.” Roberts designated INF Ryan Roberts was designated for assignment before Thursday's game to clear a spot on the 40-man roster for RHP Alex Cobb. Cobb was reinstated from the 60-day disabled list and added to the 25-man roster in time for his start against the Mariners. Maddon said the decision came down to Roberts and OF Jason Bourgeois. “We chose to keep Jason Bourgeois here for right now,” Maddon said. “A very difficult moment. You just look at the different skill sets and what you think we might need right now, and we chose to go with Jason.” Noteworthy Joyce's RBI single in the ninth inning Wednesday was his first hit on an 0-2 pitch since June 13 against Kansas City. ... Ben Zobrist's ninth-inning triple Wednesday was the 29th of his career, second-most in team history. ... LHP David Price has walked just three batters and struck out 51 in his nine starts since coming off the DL. The last pitcher to strike out more than 50 batters and walk less than four over a nine-game span was Cliff Lee in 2010 (57 and 3).