Tampa Bay's rotation will get a boost on Tuesday when Jeremy Hellickson returns from right elbow surgery to make his 2014 debut as the Rays square off with the Royals at Tropicana Field.
Hellickson on Sunday rejoined the club following a rehab assignment with Triple-A Durham. The 27-year-old right-hander hasn't pitched in a big league game since last September against the Blue Jays.
Hellickson will take Erik Bedard's spot in the rotation for the middle game of this set.
"Hopefully, I don't have the butterflies like I had my first start in [Triple-A] Durham. I was pretty anxious," Hellickson said. "I'll have to control those [Tuesday] and get the ball down in the first inning. With the excitement going through my body, it's gonna be tough, but I've just got to settle down. I'm just ready to get out there again."
Hellickson is 1-2 in five career starts against the Royals, posting a 5.97 ERA over 28 2/3 innings. The 2011 American League Rookie of the Year said he spent most of his rehab working on fastball command.
He'll oppose Jason Vargas, who tossed seven scoreless innings on Wednesday against the Twins at Target Field. Vargas (8-3) scattered four hits and walked two while striking out five. He's been hot away from Kauffman Stadium this season, going 4-0 while leading the AL with a 1.52 ERA through eight road starts.
The 31-year-old lefty earned his first win with the Royals against the Rays on April 7. He's 4-4 with a 3.10 ERA in nine career starts against Tampa Bay.
Vargas, whose 20.8-second pace between pitches is tied for the ninth-shortest among AL starters, keeps the defense behind him sharp, according to first baseman Eric Hosmer.
"He really knows his game plan when he's out there," Hosmer said. "He just fires strikes and lets his defense work. He's a fun guy to play behind, because you're on your toes every pitch."
Rays: Bedard heads to bullpen
To make room for Hellickson's return to the rotation, veteran lefty Bedard, who had been occupying the fifth starter role, was moved to the bullpen.
Bedard started the season as a long man out of the 'pen, but he soon stepped into an injury-depleted rotation. He had a stretch of five straight starts allowing one earned run or fewer from April to May, but the southpaw has been rocky over the last month or so.
"Overall, you look at his body of work," manager Joe Maddon said. "He's had some really good games and some where it was, like, four innings or less. So, you look at the body of work coming into this moment. Helly's ready. So what do you do? You make your best guess. Our best guess is, let's put Frenchy back there and give Helly a chance to become Helly again."
Royals: Butler dropped to seventh
It'll be interesting to see if Royals manager Ned Yost sticks with the lineup he used on Monday night against another Rays right-hander, Hellickson, in the second game of the series.
In the opener, Yost dropped designated hitter Billy Butler down another notch in the batting order to seventh. Butler, struggling of late, had been moved from the No. 3 spot to No. 6 on Saturday, then sat out Sunday's game against the Indians.
The reason for the drop to the No. 7 hole, Yost said, was to keep a left-right balance throughout the order to counteract the three left-handed pitchers in the Rays' bullpen.
"I couldn't figure out any other way to do it," Yost said.
This was the first time in six years that Butler had started a game batting as low as seventh.
"We need some production out of the DH spot," Yost said.
• The Royals' Alex Gordon used to have good reason to hate Tropicana Field. He was 0-for-42 at The Trop from 2007-10 before finally getting a hit in 2011. He's done better lately, hitting safely in eight of his last nine games there.
• With a win on Sunday, Tampa Bay moved out of the AL East basement for the first time since May 28, a span of 39 consecutive days in sole possession of last place.
• Jake Odorizzi and former Rays pitcher James Shields, who faced off in Monday's series opener, were traded for each other on December 9, 2012, in a seven-player deal. Monday was the first matchup in Rays history in which their starting pitcher had been traded for the opposing starter.
Jamie Ross is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.