DURHAM — Tampa Bay Rays prospect Jeremy Hellickson has heard the praise, but he can't think about it too much.
All he can do is pitch.
Many say the 23-year-old right-hander from Des Moines, Iowa, is good enough to be pitching in the major leagues right now.
But the Rays, who boast one of baseball's best five-man rotations, are in the heat of a three-way pennant chase with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, and they're in no rush to bring up Hellickson.
"I don't think it's frustrating," said Hellickson, who the Rays drafted out of high school in the fourth round of the 2005 draft. "Obviously, I'd love to be pitching in the big leagues and helping them win up there, but they've got the best rotation in baseball. I can't really control what happens."
Hellickson (11-3) has been the Bulls' most solid starting pitcher this season, but he struggled Monday against the Columbus Clippers, giving up six runs in 31/3 innings.
Despite Monday's outing, Hellickson still has a 2.56 ERA. In 109 innings, he has 110 strikeouts. In his previous 10 games, he was 5-1 with a 1.66 ERA and 55 strikeouts in 592/3 innings.
He maintains a laid-back Midwestern demeanor, but Hellickson throws a lively fastball in the low 90s, commanding the plate with a handful of major league-quality pitches.
"The velocities don't jump out at you, but when you see the kid pitch over a number of starts, you know this is the real deal," Bulls pitching coach Xavier Hernandez said. "He competes within the strike zone. He can get outs over the plate. A lot of guys at this level can only get outs off of the plate."
Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo said Hellickson may have been called up by now if he were with another organization, but his time in Durham has been good for him. Heading into the season, he had pitched in only nine games at the Triple-A level.
"He's just waiting his turn," Montoyo said.
Montoyo and his coaches have seen major improvements in Hellickson this season, including the development of a fourth pitch - a cut fastball - and vast improvement on his curveball. Those pitches likely would be less refined if the Rays had rushed him.
"So now he has four pitches instead of three," Montoyo said. "That's an extra pitch he's going to have when he gets to the big leagues."
Hernandez said Hellickson can be even better. He'd like to see him effectively throw the curveball more consistently.
"He's close to being ready," he said. "Is he there yet? No, but there's always room to improve, and that's one thing he's shown us. He hasn't been satisfied with where he's at. He's always trying to find an edge to make himself better."
Hellickson still hasn't forgotten his first Double-A start, in 2008. He surrendered five home runs in that game.
"I thought I wasn't ready," Hellickson. "It was a long four days. You throw it out the window and don't think about it, or at least try not to."
Now if Hellickson struggles, the rough stretch usually lasts only an inning, and he always seems to recover, Montoyo said.
"He's an even-keel guy," Mon toyo said. "That helps him."
Hellickson may be soft spoken, but he's confident.
"I'm just trying to stay consistent down here," he said. "My time will come."
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