It would be hard to fault the Tampa Bay Rays for their early-season struggles considering they were missing three-fifths of their starting rotation.
They're beginning to climb out of that funk, and they're hoping the return of Jeremy Hellickson leads to more success.Hellickson makes his season debut Tuesday night when the Rays continue a three-game series against the visiting Kansas City Royals.The right-hander went 12-10 with a career-high 5.17 ERA in 32 appearances -- 31 starts -- in 2013 before experiencing discomfort in his elbow after beginning an offseason throwing program in December.He had arthroscopic surgery in January and was placed on the disabled list in late March, one week before Matt Moore was lost for the season due to elbow surgery and two weeks prior to Tampa Bay putting Alex Cobb on the DL with an oblique strain that sidelined him for nearly six weeks.Those injuries are part of the reason why the Rays (41-51) have found themselves at or near the bottom of the AL East for most of the year, but a 6-0 loss in Monday's series opener was just their third in 13 games."I guess we were kind of due for one of these games," losing pitcher Jake Odorizzi said. "I don't think this game is really going to set us back that much in the long run."Hellickson began a rehab assignment June 7 and went 1-4 with a 6.23 ERA in six starts."I'm excited," Hellickson told MLB's official website. "It's definitely been a long time, but it's felt even longer. I was expecting to be back a month ago and, you know, had a couple of setbacks. But I'm feeling good now."The 2011 AL Rookie of the Year is 1-2 with a 6.18 ERA in five starts against the Royals (46-42). Billy Butler is 9 for 14, Alex Gordon has gone 7 for 14 and Omar Infante is 4 for 6 against Hellickson.Gordon and Infante each went 3 for 5 with two RBIs on Monday as Kansas City avoided a third straight loss. Infante is 11 for 25 over his last six games.Tampa Bay will be facing Jason Vargas (8-3, 3.32 ERA), who in his last outing bounced back nicely from one of his worst starts of the season.He was 3-1 with a 2.27 ERA in his previous six starts before allowing six runs and nine hits -- three homers -- in four innings in an 8-6 win over the Angels on June 27.Vargas shook off that outing by giving up four hits over seven innings in Wednesday's 4-0 victory at Minnesota to become the first Royals left-hander to win at least eight games before the All-Star break since Chris George in 2003."He really knows his game plan when he's out there," first baseman Eric 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."Vargas is 4-0 with a 1.52 ERA in eight road starts and has gone 2-1 with a 2.59 ERA in four at Tropicana Field. He gave up one run and four hits over eight innings to beat the visiting Rays 4-2 on April 7.Ben Zobrist is 11 for 26 against Vargas and homered off him three months ago. Zobrist is 10 for 18 in the last four games after going 2 for 3 on Monday.Kansas City is 13-4 in this series since the beginning of the 2012 season.