Jeremy Hellickson named Phillies' opening day starter

Jeremy Hellickson named Phillies' opening day starter

Updated: 12:50 p.m.

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Pete Mackanin has made it official.

Jeremy Hellickson will be the Phillies' opening day starter for the second year in a row two weeks from Monday in Cincinnati.

"He opened up for us last year and he had a real good year for us," Mackanin said Sunday morning. "I have a lot of confidence in him. I think he earned the right after last year."

Mackanin's choice is not surprising. Earlier this spring, he mentioned that Hellickson had the "best chance" to get the opening day nod. The right-hander, who will turn 30 on April 8, went 12-10 with a 3.71 ERA in 32 starts for the Phillies last season.

Hellickson pitched six walk-free innings, gave up three hits and just an unearned run while striking out six in his the first opening day start of his career last season in Cincinnati.

"Everyone wants to take the ball on opening day," Hellickson said. "To do that is a huge honor and I'm excited for it. It's going to be a fun atmosphere. Last year being my first one, it was something I'd dreamed of, and Cincinnati was an awesome place to do that so it will be fun again this year. I'll try to do the same thing I did last year because it was one of my better starts."

Hellickson was one of two candidates for the assignment. Mackanin and his staff debated whether to give Jerad Eickhoff the nod after he led the staff in starts (33) and ERA (3.65) last season.

"It just seemed like the right thing to do," Mackanin said of the decision to go with Hellickson.

Eickhoff, 26, will start the second game of the season.

"He's a darn-good pitcher," Mackanin said.

Hellickson would have had no qualms if Mackanin went with Eickhoff.

"There's another guy on our staff that probably deserved it a little more than me, in my opinion. That's Eick," Hellickson said. "What he did last year was pretty remarkable for his first full year. I would love to have seen him get it. It would have been awesome but I see plenty of opening day starts for him in the future."

Hellickson joked that maybe he got the start "by default of being the older guy from last year."

But he will cherish the assignment, nonetheless.

It could be his last opening day start as a Phillie.

Hellickson could have been a free agent after last season, but he opted to return after the Phillies extended him a qualifying offer of $17.2 million in the offseason. That makes him the highest-paid player on the club for 2017.

The Phillies entertained trade offers for Hellickson last summer, but could not swing a deal to their liking. The team will listen on Hellickson again this summer and there could be more urgency to deal him because he is bound for free agency (the team can not make him another one-year qualifying offer) and is probably not a long-term fit as the Phils look to build a young rotation.

None of that is on Hellickson's mind at the moment.

"I love it here," he said. "I'm not thinking about anything else other than taking the ball opening day and trying to win as many games as we can this year and see what happens.

"Taking the ball opening day is special no matter what. To come back here -- I'm having a blast with these guys again and hopefully, we're having a lot of fun during the season."

After Hellickson and Eickhoff, the Phillies will send Clay Buchholz, Vince Velasquez and Aaron Nola to the mound.

Velasquez lines up to pitch the home opener April 7 against the Washington Nationals.

Best of MLB: Royals storm back in 9th inning for win over Blue Jays

Best of MLB: Royals storm back in 9th inning for win over Blue Jays

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Whit Merrifield hit a two-run, two-out double that capped a four-run rally in the ninth inning, and the Kansas City Royals beat the Toronto Blue Jays 5-4 on Friday night to reach .500 for the first time since April.

With their 10th win in 12 games, the Royals improved to 36-36. They were 6-6 before play on April 20, then went on a nine-game losing streak that night and dropped as low as 10-20, seven games out of first place. They trail AL Central-leading Cleveland by three games.

Toronto took a 2-1 lead into the ninth and extended it when Josh Donaldson and Justin Smoak hit RBI singles off Joakim Soria (4-2) (see full recap).

Dodgers cruise past Rockies for 8th straight win
LOS ANGELES -- Yasiel Puig homered and left-hander Alex Wood kept his record perfect as the streaking Los Angeles Dodgers defeated the NL West rival Colorado Rockies 6-1 on Friday night for their eighth consecutive victory.

The Dodgers have won 14 of their last 15 games. They have scored at least six runs in seven consecutive games.

Wood (8-0) allowed one run in six innings. He gave up only three hits and walked two, retiring his last 10 batters.

The Dodgers have homered in 15 consecutive games, tied for fourth-longest streak in club history. The last time they managed it was in 1977. Their record is 24 consecutive games with a home run.

Rookie left-hander Kyle Freeman (8-4) allowed five runs and a career-high 10 hits and three walks in six innings (see full recap).

Torreyes hits walk-off single to lift Yanks over Rangers
NEW YORK -- Ronald Torreyes hit a game-winning single with two outs in the 10th inning after midnight, and the New York Yankees edged the Texas Rangers 2-1 on a rainy Friday night for just their second win in 10 games.

Brett Gardner lined a tying home run with one out in the New York ninth off closer Matt Bush. After Chasen Shreve (2-1) escaped a bases-loaded jam in the top of the 10th, Torreyes kept the Yankees atop the AL East.

Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka kept it scoreless into the late innings in the first major league meeting between the Japanese stars (see full recap).

Mark Leiter Jr. picks up 1st big-league win as Phillies cool off Diamondbacks

Mark Leiter Jr. picks up 1st big-league win as Phillies cool off Diamondbacks

BOX SCORE

PHOENIX -- The clubhouse was beginning to clear and still the star of the game had not yet emerged from the shower.

"He's in there cleaning the guacamole and mayo out of his hair," Cameron Rupp said with a laugh.

Eventually Mark Leiter Jr. made it out of the shower and over to his locker where equipment man Phil Sheridan presented him with three game balls, souvenirs from not only his first big-league start but his first big-league win, as well.

"It's something I'll never forget," the 26-year-old right-hander from Toms River, N.J., said pitching six shutout innings to backbone the Phillies' 6-1 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on Friday night (see Instant Replay).

"I’ll be honest, I was probably more excited for this than I was for my major-league debut. To go out there and contribute to a win is what I was hoping to do."

Leiter, a 22nd-round draft pick by the Phillies in 2013, had never made it onto the 40-man roster until the Phils needed a reliever in mid-April and gave him a shot after he'd gotten off to a good start at Triple A. He spent six weeks in the majors and made 12 relief appearances before being sent back to Triple A the first weekend of June.

Leiter worked as a starter during his time back at Triple A. He pitched six shutout innings against Syracuse in his last start and got the call to come back up when Jerad Eickhoff went on the disabled list with a back strain earlier this week.

Leiter's return assignment was not easy: The Diamondbacks are one of the best hitting clubs in the majors and the best on their home turf. They entered the game scoring 6.48 runs per game at home and with an .886 OPS, both major-league bests.

None of that fazed Leiter.

"In my opinion, this is the big leagues and it doesn’t matter who the lineup is," he said. "They all have the ability to hit and hit well. They’re all big-leaguers and they've earned their right to be big-leaguers. I was just trying to pitch to the team you're facing that day."

Leiter trusted his low-90s fastball and commanded it well. He mixed in his secondary stuff and kept the D-backs off-balance with his splitter. He scattered three hits, walked one and struck out five. He showed no fear.

"Great performance," manager Pete Mackanin said. "He made it look easy. He made a lot of good hitters look bad with his split. For him to come up and do that to a real good hitting team was outstanding."

Leiter's dad, Mark Sr., pitched for the Phillies in 1997 and 1998. He made the trip in from New Jersey to watch his son's first big-league start.

"I guess they found him on TV," Leiter said. "That's what they were telling me. I'm sure he wasn't too pleased they found him because he was probably stressed out. But I think it was probably worth him coming out here. He's probably happy."

How could he not be?

Leiter's teammates were definitely happy.

They treated Leiter to a raucous postgame dousing that included as many different condiments as could be found in the clubhouse dining room. One laughing player had a bottle of ketchup in his hands. Another had a squeeze bottle of honey.

And then there was the guacamole and mayo that Rupp mentioned.

"In his first major-league start, to come up here and do that in what is known as a good hitters’ park - that proves Mark is pretty strong between the ears," Tommy Joseph said. "He's been one of those under-the-radar guys that people have doubted, but his mentality and ability to prepare are second to none."

Joseph played a big role in the win, smacking a two-run homer in the ninth inning to give the Phillies some breathing room. Maikel Franco also had a big home run and Freddy Galvis contributed an important triple that led to a Phillies' run in the first inning.

The Phils still have the worst record in the majors at 24-48, but they've won two in a row, both on the back of good starting pitching performances. Aaron Nola pitched 7 1/3 innings of one-run ball on Thursday.

And Leiter delivered on Friday.

"It's good to see those back-to-back," Mackanin said.