Well, hey, welcome back to The Trop, Elliot Johnson.
The long-time Tampa Bay Ray, playing Thursday night at Tropicana Field for the first time as an opponent, ignited and capped an eight-run sixth inning that carried the Royals to a 10-1 victory.
Sort of a remember-me kiss, and Johnson didn’t pretend it didn’t mean more coming against the Rays than, say, the Indians or Orioles.
“Sure, it does,” he said. “The first time I’ve been back here. I had a lot of good times, a lot of good years with them. I’ve moved on. I play for the Royals now, and I’ll do everything I can to help this team win.”
That everything, on this night, totaled three hits in four at-bats, two runs scored and three RBIs. Two of those hits came in the sixth inning; a leadoff single and a three-run knockout homer.
The final score reflects a blowout, but this was a scoreless pitchers’ duel between Ervin Santana and Tampa Bay’s Jeremy Hellickson when Johnson opened the sixth by snapping a zero-for-14 skid with a sharp single to right.
That marked a third straight inning that the Royals put their leadoff hitter on base. Hellickson, 4-3, barely broke a sweat in the fourth and fifth innings.
This was different.
“He was good,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “But after a couple of times through facing him, we had more of an idea of what his plan was. Just key at-bats with runners in scoring position.”
After Johnson’s single, Alcides Escobar’s attempted sacrifice spun foul up the third-base line, which turned into a good thing when he ripped the next pitch past third for a double. Yes, he pulled the ball, hard, past third.
How’s that for a turn in fortune?
Johnson stopped at third — but scored the game’s first run when Alex Gordon followed by driving a single into center.
Hellickson jumped head 0-2 on Hosmer but buried the next pitch, a curve, and the ball bounced past catcher Jose Molina. Escobar scored for a 2-0 lead as Gordon moved to second.
Salvy Perez’s one-out single into center scored Gordon for another run.
When Billy Butler followed with a perfect hit-and-run single — hey, Perez was running, and Butler punched it through the vacated right side — the Royals had runners at first and third with one out.
(Think this inning didn’t have magic?)
Hellickson had a chance to escape with just three runs after striking out Lorenzo Cain, but David Lough flicked an RBI single into right for a 4-0 lead. Miguel Tejada’s sharp grounder past third pushed the margin to five.
“I guess they’d seen (Hellickson) the first two times (through the lineup),” said bench coach Chino Cadahia, who ran the club while manager Ned Yost got a night off to attend his daughter’s wedding.
“They struggled with the change-up. Hellickson is a real good pitcher, and he was locating his fastball. And his change-up was really good. He kept us off-stride. I guess we figured it out in the sixth, and here we go.”
The Royals weren’t done. Tejada’s single got the game back to Johnson, who blasted a 1-1 pitch deep into the right-field seats for a three-run homer and an 8-0 lead.
The 397-foot drive, Johnson said, was “as far as I can hit it” and is the result of extra time spent working with interim hitting coach George Brett.
“He found something I was doing wrong,” Johnson said, “and we’ve been working every single day to try to get it right. It came together a little better the at-bat (the single) leading off the inning.
“The home run, I haven’t been able to put that kind of bat speed together without George’s help. He deserves plenty of credit.”
Johnson’s homer came on Hellickson’s 34th pitch of the inning and last of the game. Former Royal Jake Odorizzi closed out the inning, and the game, before getting optioned to Class AAA Durham.
“I left some balls up,” Hellickson said, “and they put some good swings on it. I threw great the first five innings. I’ll just try to forget about that sixth and move on.”
The last Royals player to get two hits in an inning was Hosmer on Aug. 20, 2011, at Boston. That was also in the sixth inning, and it was also the last time the Royals scored eight runs in an inning. They won that game 9-4.
Santana, 5-5, permitted five hits and just one unearned run in 72/3 innings while lowering his ERA to 2.74. J.C. Gutierrez got the final four outs.
“Everything is coming around,” Santana said. “We put some very good swings on the ball. Everything is going our way right now. We just have to keep it up, keep playing hard.”
The Royals have won eight of their last nine and are back to within two games of .500 at 31-33. Santana and Gutierrez also helped them set a franchise record by holding an opponent to three runs or fewer for a 12th straight game.
While Johnson paced the 14-hit attack, the Royals also got two hits apiece from Gordon, Butler and Lough. They got homers from Johnson and Hosmer for their first multihomer game since May 10.
The eight-run sixth came out of nowhere.
Hellickson retired the first nine Royals before Gordon broke the string with a leadoff single in the fourth. Perez soon followed with an inning-ending, double-play grounder to short.
Butler lined a leadoff single into center in the fifth, but Hellickson retired the next three hitters.
Santana was rolling, too. He needed just four pitches to retire the Rays in the first inning and only nine more in the second. He permitted only two runners over the first five innings.
In short, it was pretty much like almost every Royals game over the last few weeks: tight and tense; lockdown pitching, and an locked-out attack.
The loudest noise before the sixth inning occurred before the top of the second. The Rays put together a video salute to Royals pitcher James Shields prior to the second inning.
It showed several highlights from Shields’ 12 pro seasons with the organization. When the crowd stood and cheered at its conclusion, Shields emerged from the dugout and returned the salute by tapping his heart.
Shields is a special case, of course. In many ways, he epitomized the Rays’ rise from a punching bag to a perennial postseason contender. It was a classy move.
But that big December trade that brought Shields to the Royals for four prospects also netted Wade Davis and, as a player to be named later (in February!) Elliot Johnson.
Just a reminder.