Alan Dell

Two young Rays off to great start

Three games into spring training, and this is what we know about the Tampa Bay Rays: Jeremy Hellickson is living the dream, and Sean Rodriguez is making all of us dreamers.

The question surrounding Rodriguez is whether he will give that Superman cape he is hiding in his suitcase to anyone else.

Six at-bats do not get you on anyone’s roster, but when they produce three homers, a triple and a double, they get you a lot of attention.

That’s what Rodriguez wanted when he came to camp: to be noticed and given a fair chance to fight for the second base job or an outfield position; heck, he has even offered to catch.

Hellickson’s first outing against a major league lineup was the stuff that makes for a good Hollywood script, though some might call it too unbelievable.

Pitching against the New York Yankees and Derek Jeter, his favorite team and boyhood idol, didn’t seem to faze the 22-year-old Friday.

The right-hander faced four batters, striking out Jeter with a nasty curve, and then showed his moxy, getting Mark Teixeira swinging on a 3-2 changeup.

Hellickson has a choir boy look with a demeanor of a hired gun. He was almost apologetic about how he struck out Jeter.

Despite his surreal outing, the Iowa native appears to be the real thing. He was named the Minor League Pitcher of the Year for the Rays’ organization in 2009 after a standout year at Triple-A Durham.

It’s why Rays skipper Joe Maddon didn’t spare the rod and threw Hellickson out there right after David Price to take on the heart of the Yankees order.

“I wanted him to face a good group in a good venue with a full house,” the manager said. “He controlled his emotions and was able to throw a breaking ball calmly to strike out Jeter and a good change to Teixeira.”

With the Rays rotation set, Hellickson will likely begin the season at Durham. His goal is to be on top of Maddon’s phone list when a need arises, which may very well happen.

“Hopefully, I can give them not a tough choice, but show them I can handle pitching up here,” Hellickson said.

Maddon won’t get swept away with Rodriguez so much that when his numbers come back down to earth he will lose interest. It’s the intangibles and versatility of the 24-year-old that intrigue him.

“I like the way he comes to the ballpark and gets ready every day. We are seeing a lot of the good stuff scouts told us about him,” Maddon said. “It’s real early, but I like what he is doing; that is an understatement.”

Rodriguez’s power surge should not be a surprise. He hit 29 out of the park in 365 at-bats with Salt Lake City last year before joining the Rays from the Los Angeles Angels as part of the Scott Kazmir deal. He ranked second among all Triple-A players in slugging percentage (.616) and tied for second in homers.

Out Miami’s Coral Park High, the same school that produced Jose Canseco, Rodriguez believes his versatility will determine his 2010 season. He played six different positions in the minors, including short, second, third and all three outfield spots.

“I am sure the fast start will help. But at the same time they are looking for more in other areas,” he said. “They want me to cut down on strikeouts (119 at Salt Lake) and do the little things right. I am willing to do whatever it takes. I can also catch. I have done that before and am not afraid of it.”

Spoken like a true dreamer.

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