KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The green grass and steamy afternoon temperatures on Monday proved a contrasting backdrop to the chilly, snow-covered field at Kauffman Stadium the last time Tampa Bay paid a visit to face the Royals on May 2.
At the forefront, however, was two all-too-familiar sights — Jeremy Hellickson struggled on the mound and the Rays had it handed to them by the Royals.
Monday’s 11-1 loss to Kansas City, which dropped Tampa Bay 1½ games behind the idle Boston Red Sox for the lead in the American League East, marked the sixth consecutive setback for the Rays at Kauffman Stadium and saw the Royals take six of seven games from Tampa Bay in the season series.
In the three games at Kansas City this season, Tampa Bay was outscored 28-11, while the Royals ended the season series outscoring Tampa Bay 53-22 in the seven meetings.
“For some reason we can’t seem to catch a break against them here, or anywhere this year,’’ second baseman Ben Zobrist said. “I’m glad we are not playing them any more this year.’’
While it might be simple to chalk up Monday’s defeat as one of those days for a team making a one-game trek to play a make-up game, the recent struggles for Hellickson (10-8) have taken a more alarming turn.
For the fifth time in his past six starts, Hellickson failed to pitch past the fourth inning after he was pulled with two outs in the third on Monday, allowing five runs on seven hits. The 2ª-inning outing matched the shortest start of his career, but his previous short stint came on June 30, 2012, when he left after being struck on the leg by a line drive.
During his past six starts, Hellickson has allowed 42 hits in 25 innings pitched while posting an ERA of 9.00 while his ERA for the season has risen to 5.21 in 27 starts. It didn’t help he was facing a Kansas City team that has owned him this season to the tune of an 11.48 ERA in 13ß innings.
“It’s very frustrating when you go out there and don’t give your team a chance to win at all,’’ Hellickson said. “I’m still confident, I’m feeling good. I made some good pitches that they just hit, and I still feel good about myself. There are still a lot of games left.’’
Manager Joe Maddon didn’t hesitate when asked about the team’s confidence in Hellickson, but he admitted they are somewhere they have never been with Hellickson, a former American League rookie of the year who has been a consistent member of the starting rotation the previous two seasons with ERAs of 2.95 and 3.10.
“Of course there is concern. We are just trying to figure out what we can do to help him, that’s all because we are not used to seeing this with him,’’ Maddon said. “His stuff is just not as we have seen in the past. Nothing was very sharp again. They did benefit from some well-placed hits, but nevertheless, he’s just not sharp overall with his stuff.’’
Even the normally cerebral Maddon seems a bit perplexed over how to help solve the struggles of the 25-year-old pitcher, turning over as many stones as he can find in the hopes of figuring out a solution.
“I’ve been looking at a bunch of different things. I’ve had a bunch of different reports run on him and there is nothing definitively different about him right now,’’ Maddon said.
It was an ominous start for Hellickson as the first two Kansas City hitters reached base on excuse-me swings for bloop hits that led to a first-inning run.
In the third, an infield single by Emilio Bonafacio started a four-run rally that included an RBI single by Billy Butler, an RBI double by Mike Moustakas, a sacrifice fly from Salvador Perez and a run-scoring single by Justin Maxwell to give the Royals a five-run lead and end Hellickson’s afternoon early.
“For the most part, I felt good,’’ Hellickson said. “A lot of those balls they hit were change-ups that were down. You just have to tip your cap, sometimes. I left a few balls up, but for the most part, especially the last five or six games — and it’s tough to say going just two innings — probably one of my more consistent games command-wise.’’
The Rays’ offense, meanwhile, had it’s share of hard-hit balls but failed to come up with the big hit early to keep the game within reach. Evan Longoria struck out to end the top of the third with two runners on and David DeJesus struck out looking to end the fourth with the bases loaded and the Rays down 5-1.
“It’s just one of those ‘uh’ days,’’ DeJesus said.