ATLANTA — Jeremy Hellickson’s fourth-inning walk to the dugout was direct and final, the trek of a man destined for disappointment, of a veteran who hoped only to prove he was healthy, yet couldn’t complete the task.
In his first start in a month, which came in a 7-1 Washington Nationals win over the Atlanta Braves, Hellickson had thrown three innings when he came to the plate with the bases loaded and one out — his second at-bat since missing time with a sprained wrist. He fouled off a pitch and felt shooting pain in that wrist. He hoped he could take a few pitches and get out of there, but he realized the bases were loaded and forced himself to swing at the next pitch, too. He missed it and walked off the field, certain by then that he had reaggravated that wrist injury — and relatively sure his season would end there.
Hellickson had allowed an unearned run on two hits, and he was followed by 4⅔ innings of scoreless relief from Jefry Rodriguez. The Nationals tied a franchise record that dates back to the organization’s days in Montreal by collecting 14 walks, which helped provide plenty of run support. Juan Soto set his daily record, stealing three bases to become the youngest player to do that since 1900. Rickey Henderson, baseball’s stolen base king, was 20 years old when he first did it.
But for Hellickson, the day was devastating, even if his loss will not devastate this now-crowded rotation. The Nationals had little room for Hellickson to begin with, which is why Saturday’s start seemed so important to the veteran’s future. If he pitched so well they could not ignore him, perhaps he would earn another start. But at this time of year, after a season like this, the whole thing illustrated a different side of the big leagues, the way one day can change a player’s season and career with barely a moment’s notice.
“It’s definitely really frustrating. All three of these injuries have been pretty frustrating. All three out of my control,” Hellickson said. “I love taking the ball every fifth day and competing and just going out there with these guys. To only make 19 starts, it sucks.”
For Hellickson — a soon-to-be free agent — a livelihood was quite literally at stake. After waiting a month on the disabled list with a fluke wrist injury, after losing a month to a similarly fluky hamstring pull earlier this year, he was pitching to prove that he is healthy once again, just in time to enter free agency with a convincing résumé.
Saturday might have been his last start of 2018 anyway. With Erick Fedde and Joe Ross healthy, the Nationals had five pitchers for a five-man rotation, and they did not want to expand to six.
But Hellickson entered Saturday with the second-best ERA of any Nationals starter — 3.57 — over a large enough sample to qualify as telling. So after battling back and through two disabled list stints, he was unofficially pitching to convince the Nationals he deserved a few more chances, and to convince other teams he deserves a deal for 2019, too. If this injury ends his season, as he suspects it will, he will finish with a 3.45 ERA in 19 starts, second only to Max Scherzer among regular Nationals starters.
“It’s been tough for him,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “Weird injuries. Has nothing to do with his arm. His arm is in great shape.”
Rodriguez relieved Hellickson on Saturday, just like he did when Hellickson pulled his hamstring here in early June. The young right-hander did not allow a hit in 4⅔ innings of impressive relief, and his sacrifice bunt set up a three-run rally in the sixth that included RBI doubles from Adam Eaton and Anthony Rendon. He also drove in a run with a single in the seventh, his first career RBI. Eaton and Rendon drove in two runs each, while Soto and Bryce Harper drew three walks apiece.
Rodriguez’s continued progress could convince the Nationals front office that there is enough starting depth in the system that the team would not need to sign a veteran starter such as Hellickson to provide depth next year.
“He’ll come to spring training and definitely get an opportunity to do something for us, whether it’s to start or maybe even pitch in the bullpen,” Martinez said of Rodriguez. “He’s really jumped as far as mentally, maturity, and learning how to pitch up here.”
Teams like the Nationals (75-74) tend to bet on upside, on young pitchers with 98-mph fastballs like Rodriguez, instead of control-oriented veterans like Hellickson. Given the choice, they often err on the side of giving a young pitcher a shot. But Hellickson provided much-needed stability when key starters young and old were injured this year. Whatever one thinks of where the Nationals are now, they would not be a game over .500 without him.
But his Nationals tenure might have ended Saturday afternoon, a reminder of the fact that while this team marches on toward what seems certain to be a disappointing end, the individuals involved still have plenty at stake.