In his last start, Hellickson had allowed only one run through five innings on a David Peralta solo homer against the Diamondbacks April 28. Peralta came up for the third time in the sixth and hit another homer. After Hellickson retired Jarrod Dyson, he was pulled. He had registered 56 pitches.
Martinez said Hellickson's numbers drop off the third plate appearance versus each batter.
"The numbers say the third time through the order he goes through a rough time," said Martinez. "Hopefully today we score a number of runs and we can get him through that."
In his career, Hellickson allowed a .238 batting average against and his strikeout/walk ratio is 3.57 first time through the order. The third time through the order, the batting average spikes to .274 and is strikeout/walk ratio drops to 1.73. The on-base percentage also goes up to .336 the third time through the order. First time he faces the batter, his career on-base percentage allowed is .286.
Martinez said it is a tough decision to make when Hellickson is doing relatively well and has a low pitch count.
"We will have to really think about it," Martinez noted. "He does really well up till that third time around. We will just have to keep an eye on it. He gives us a chance to win when he's out there."
Cubs manager Joe Maddon and Martinez have been big proponents of monitoring starter numbers third time through the order for many years in Chicago and Tampa Bay.
"We did a lot, even in Tampa," Martinez said. "I know on all my worksheets we calculate third time through the order and see what transpires with different pitchers. We've done it a lot. It's hard to take a guy out when he has got 56 pitches and he's cruising and then all of a sudden he gives up a homer."
Is it based on facing swing and miss guys or contact guys? What factors play into his decision to pull him after facing hitters twice in a game?
"It could be a little different, yeah," Martinez said on game situations. "It could be a left/right thing as well too. We'll just have to see where you're at in the order. I think come the fifth inning you got the bottom of the order up, it could be totally different."
So was the April 28 scenario just Peralta seeing Hellickson well and no one else, or was the second homer allowed a sign that the right-hander was fatiguing?
"Last time Helly pitched he had 56 pitches and he was cruising, he looked great," Martinez said of the decision to go to the bullpen after 5 1/3 innings from Hellickson against Arizona. "And I thought, 'hey, he's got good enough stuff to get through'. All of a sudden he gives up a homer. That changes quickly.
"My biggest thing is to watch to see if their mechanics change or see if they are starting to get tired. See a whole lot of different things. A lot of has to do with where we are at in their order."
It will be interesting to see if Martinez will allow Hellickson to venture to the seventh inning today. The last four starters (Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg) have at least pitched into the seventh inning. Three of them (Gonzalez, Roark, Strasburg) finished the seventh.
Hellickson could get that shot today if the Nats have a big lead or the right-hander has not been taxed much. It will be Martinez's decision. But the formula of the Nats starter getting to the seventh inning has been a major contributor to the club's current four-game win streak.
Update: Hellickson has down a nice job of keeping the Pirates off the scoreboard for the first three innings. He has faced 10 batters, so each batter at least once, with leadoff hitter Adam Frazier grounding out to second base in his two at-bats.
Facing Pirates right-handed Trevor Williams has been up to the task as well, allowing only a Matt Wieters single through three frames.
After three innings, the Nats and Pirates are scoreless.
Update II: Hellickson got into the sixth, but with two outs allowed a single to Adam Frazier. True to his prediction, Martinez pulled him in favor of left-hander Sammy SolÃs. Hellickson allowed no runs on three hits in 5 2/3 innings, with no walks and four strikeouts. He fired 61 pitches, 44 for strikes. Solis retired the next batter to get out of the inning.
Mid-sixth, the Nats and the Pirates are scoreless.
Williams last 5 2/3 innings for the Pirates, allowing three runs on four hits with one walk and three strikeouts on 90 pitches, 53 for strikes.
After six innings, the Nats lead the Pirates 3-0.
Update IV: Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle got the Nats out of the eighth, allowing only one run on one hit. Colin Moran reached on a hit by pitch. After a strikeout, pinch-hitter Josh Bell singled. An error by Howie Kendrick allowed Frazier to reach. Against Doolittle, Gregory Polanco's fielder's choice to second base scored Moran. Starling Marte flew out to right field to end the inning.
Mid-eighth, the Nats lead 3-1 over the Pirates.
Update V: Doolittle retires Freese on a comebacker to the mound. Dickerson flew out to left fielder Rafael Bautista. Elias Diaz flew out to Zimmerman to end the game.
Doolittle records five outs for his sixth save.
Final score: The Nats sweep the Pirates, 3-1.
The Nats are at the .500 mark (16-16) for the first time since April 20.