But he has made a habit of stabilizing the Nationals, one light toss at a time, and laid the groundwork for a 9-6 win over the Giants on Wednesday night. Hellickson (2-0) gave up two runs in 5⅔ innings to earn the victory. He has given up three earned runs or fewer in 20 of his 21 starts for Washington going back to last season. He left with a two-run lead that grew to five runs after seventh-inning home runs from Matt Adams and Kurt Suzuki.
The Giants still managed to send the tying run to the plate in the ninth after Austen Williams gave up four hits and four runs without retiring a batter in the inning. That eventually led closer Sean Doolittle to finish a game that should not have required his services.
Hellickson again was steady enough to put Washington in a position to build an advantage and narrowly keep it. He also looked like a possible separation point, however subtle of one, in what should be a highly competitive National League East.
“I thought it was pretty good,” Hellickson said of his start, his slow Iowa drawl sapping himself of any credit. “Command was a little shaky there for a couple batters but made pitches when I needed to, and defense was really good tonight.”
By mid-December, after the Nationals signed Patrick Corbin and traded away Tanner Roark, they had two more spots to fill in a shifting rotation. Washington wound up with two soft-throwing veterans off the secondary market. First came Aníbal Sánchez, and then, in the first week of February, Hellickson agreed to return for one year and $1.3 million.
He threw six scoreless in a 15-1 win over the Philadelphia Phillies on April 10. After beginning the season in the bullpen, he is the first Nationals starter to reach two wins. He has quietly, slowly, surely become a staple behind Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Corbin. It’s just easy to forget.
“He’s been unbelievable since he’s been here,” Manager Dave Martinez said before Wednesday’s start. There is a caveat to Hellickson’s run of strong starts because he typically exits before a third turn through an order. That taxes the bullpen. That also helps keep his numbers down. Yet he was again asked to protect an early three-run lead after Juan Soto and Howie Kendrick homered off Giants starter Jeff Samardzija in the first. And he was again up to the job.
Hellickson cruised through the first three innings on just 30 pitches. The last of those ended abruptly when Victor Robles caught a flyball in deep center, crow-hopped into a throw and nailed a tagging Steven Duggar at third. Hellickson skidded into trouble in the fourth, letting the first two hitters reach and allowing a pair of runs. He settled back in, stranding two runners in the fifth and was working through the sixth until an error by Adams allowed Kevin Pillar to reach first base.
His night ended at 79 pitches after he retired one more hitter. Matt Grace threw one pitch to get out of the inning. Wander Suero retired all five hitters he faced. Williams came in to relieve him, struck out Evan Longoria on three pitches and, in the ninth, gave up four runs on a single, homer, double and homer. Kyle Barraclough and Doolittle then narrowly avoided another bullpen collapse.
“Physically, I felt fine, I felt good,” Doolittle said of quickly warming up for his eighth appearance in 16 games. “Mentally, it was a little bit chaotic. It was a little bit crazy there for a minute. But that’s an occupational hazard when you are a reliever.”
The NL East promises to be a tight, four-team race all season. Distinctions have been hard to find among the Nationals, Phillies, New York Mets and Atlanta Braves. The Nationals’ bullpen entered Wednesday with a league-worst 7.83 ERA — before it faltered again — but relievers also have struggled for the other three teams. Each club has an explosive offense. But rotation depth is at a premium. The Phillies optioned Nick Pivetta to the minor leagues after a rough outing Tuesday. Jason Vargas, the Mets’ fifth starter, has a 14.21 ERA in three appearances. The Braves are relying on a group of young arms to carry them through.
And the Nationals have Hellickson, an unlikely anchor, a reliable arm who doesn’t give too much or too little. Maybe he picked on the Giants’ subpar offense Wednesday. Maybe the quality of his starts will wane. Or maybe the Nationals know exactly what they will get from him — in the past, present and, if this plan works, the next five months of the future.
Correction: A previous version of this story said Hellickson left the game during the fifth inning.