ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — 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.
Johnson spent 11 years in the Rays' organization before emerging as the final piece in a seven-player, off-season deal. He went three for four with a three-run homer.
The final score reflects a blowout. It wasn't.
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.
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 Eric 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.
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.
And with that, the Royals had batted around, which got the game to Johnson again. He tomahawked a 1-1 pitch deep into the right-field seats for a three-run homer and an 8-0 lead.
That was Hellickson's 34th, and last, pitch of the inning. Former Royal Jake Odorizzi (he went to the Rays in that big trade) got the inning's final out.
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.
The Royals immediately got sloppy with the big lead.
Molina led off the Tampa Bay sixth with a single and went to second on the wildest of pitches. Yunel Escobar's tapper to third should have been an out, but Tejada threw wildly to first for a run-scoring error.
When Matt Joyce floated a single into short left, on an 0-2 pitch, the Rays had runners at first and second with no outs. Santana went to full count on Ben Zobrist before the inning turned around.
Zobrist hit a liner to shortstop Alcides Escobar, who doubled off Yunel Escobar at second.
Hosmer got the run back with a one-out homer in the seventh against Odorizzi, which made it 9-1 when the crowd stretched. The Royals got another run in the eighth on Lough's RBI single. Santana (5-5) permitted five hits and one unearned run in 7 2/3 innings while lowering his ERA to 2.74. J.C. Gutierrez got the final four outs.
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 opened the game by retiring 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 one runner in the first three innings.
In short, pretty much like almost every Royals game over the last few weeks. Tight and tense. Lockdown pitching, and a locked-out attack.
The loudest noise over those five innings came before the top of the second. The Rays put together a video salute to Royals pitcher James Shields before the second inning.
It showed several highlights from his 12 pro seasons with the club. 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.