Jeremy Hellickson is active, but what role will he serve for the Nationals? (Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

PHILADELPHIA — Jeremy Hellickson speaks slowly and carefully, as if every word could carry consequences, unwilling to say something he might regret. Even less-than-consequential situations do not ease him out of constant calculation, his care unrelenting in large part because he has seemed unwilling to sugarcoat his truth at times this season.

When the Nationals activated him from the disabled list Wednesday, Hellickson spoke slowly and firmly as he explained that while he would be willing to pitch out of the bullpen for a night because of this team’s extenuating scheduling circumstances, he would rather not do so regularly. Hellickson sprained his right wrist on a freak play in mid-August, his second disabled list stint because of a freak injury after a similarly strange play resulted in a pulled hamstring.

“I want to start, get a few more starts in,” Hellickson. “I’m a starter. I never came out of the bullpen. I feel like that’s . . . well, especially when we have a lot of guys down there already. Like I said, I’m a starter. So I don’t think that’s really something I want to do.”

At times this season, the Nationals were desperate for starting help, and Hellickson would have started whether he wanted to or not. But the trouble is that the Nationals are loaded with young pitchers Dave Martinez and the Nationals’ front office want to see get a chance. Joe Ross and Erick Fedde are back and healthy, and both are currently in the rotation along with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Tanner Roark. Jefry Rodriguez also has turned in promising outings, though has not yet proven he can last deep into games.

Hellickson is on the outside looking in at a rotation that no longer prioritizes reliable performers as much as giving younger pitchers the chance to grow into stars. No one with the team will admit this, of course, given the Nationals have not been mathematically eliminated. But for now, Hellickson’s rotation spot is a casualty of that shift in mentality.

“At the moment, we’re taking it one day at a time,” Martinez said. “. . . We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. If we do play Friday, Scherzer will be the pitcher. Saturday is up in the air.”

In 18 starts this season, Hellickson has a 3.57 ERA, second only to Scherzer among Nationals starters. Martinez has managed Hellickson carefully, rarely allowing him to proceed through an opposing lineup a third time and maintaining a short leash when hitters did get a third shot at him. Hellickson was careful but firm after most outings, too. He thinks he can pitch deeper into games, but he is not the manager. Hellickson has averaged just fewer than five innings per start this season. When asked about whether he had enough time to build back up to starting shape, Hellickson acknowledged this point.

“I’m ready. I threw a 50-pitch simulated game in D.C.,” Hellickson said. “I don’t know the most pitches I’ve thrown in a game this year, but I feel like I’m ready to go out there and throw 75, 90 pitches no problem.”

The Nationals signed Hellickson to a minor league deal midway through spring training, and they got a bargain. Should Hellickson decide he wants to stay, the Nationals would probably love to have him for depth entering the 2019 season, but Hellickson’s disagreement with his usage could preclude a reunion. What happens between now and then could affect Hellickson’s market in the offseason. For now, that imminent future remains unclear.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS (72-71)

Adam Eaton RF

Trea Turner SS

Bryce Harper CF

Anthony Rendon 3B

Juan Soto LF

Ryan Zimmerman 1B

Matt Wieters C

Wilmer Difo 2B

Stephen Strasburg P

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES (74-70)

Cesar Hernandez 2B

Rhys Hoskins LF

Nick Williams RF

Carlos Santana 1B

Asdrubal Cabrera 3B

Odubel Herrera CF

J.P. Crawford SS

Jorge Alfaro C

Aaron Nola P

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