Through five innings Thursday, Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson looked to be on a clear drive down I-275. But in the sixth he ran into the equivalent of the downtown Tampa interchange at rush hour before getting derailed in an all too familiar fashion.
And the biggest blow that sent Hellickson completely out of his lane and into the median came off the bat of former teammate Elliot Johnson, who led the charge in an 10-1 Kansas City victory with two of his three hits coming in an eight-run sixth inning, which included a three-run home run that knocked Hellickson (4-3) from the game.
The Rays (35-31) have dropped four of their past five games as Tampa Bay managed just five hits off Ervin Santana (5-5) who did not walk a batter in 7 2/3 innings.
To help Tampa Bay get back on the winning track, Hellickson is going to have to find a way to rediscover what has made his successful in the past. For stretches this season, he has shown that ability before seeing it slip away with one bad inning, which is exactly how things transpired on Thursday.
“It’s happened way too many times,’’ Hellickson said of one inning getting away from him. “I’m pretty frustrated, this wasn’t a fun game.’’
Hellickson started on cruise control retiring the first nine batters and faced the minimum through four innings of work. Heading into the sixth, Hellickson allowed just two hits before he hit the roadblock.
Johnson, who came into the game on 0-for-13 stretch and had just two hits in his previous 31 at bats including his first time up on Thursday, opened the sixth by lining a base hit to right field. Alcides Escobar followed with a double and Alex Gordon singled to give the Royals a 1-0 lead. Four singles later, Kansas City built a 5-0 lead as Johnson came to the plate for the second time in the inning.
With two runners on base, Johnson put a charge into a 1-1 pitch that landed in the right field stands to break the game open and chase Hellickson, who allowed eight runs on 10 hits in 5 2/3 innings before giving way to Jake Odorizzi.
“The home run, as soon as it hits my bat, I know that’s gone,’’ Johnson said. “I hit that ball as far as I can hit it.’’
Johnson finished the game 3-for-4 to improve his season totals against the Rays to 6-for-11 with two home runs (both off Hellickson) and 4 RBI in three games; against the rest of the league Johnson is hitting .202 (17-for-84) with no home runs and 3 RBI in 39 games played.
“We’ve really elevated his numbers a bit,’’ Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s jacked up about (playing against the Rays) I know, he played well against us in Kansas City and did it again tonight. He’s played well against us, he really has and I give him credit.’’
As much as Elliot’s success against Tampa Bay is perplexing, so has Hellickson’s ability to get knocked off track in his starts. The former American League rookie of the year has allowed five or more runs in six of his 14 starts this season and pitched into the seventh inning only six times.
More often than not, the recipe he showed on Thursday has been the same. Look good for innings at a time, get into trouble and never find a way to recover.
“He’ll be going along in a nice groove and he’ll be making nice pitches,’’ Maddon said. “Truthfully, and it’s not a line that he just made a bad pitch, but he has made bad pitches and that’s why he’s got hit in the later parts of the game. … (Thursday) he was just cruising and then not cruising.’’
In his past two starts, both victories, Hellickson appeared to be turning the corner, specifically on Saturday against Baltimore when he pitched six innings of shutout baseball allowing just four hits. He carried that over into the first five innings on Thursday before the familiar theme recurred.
“I don’t really know what to say right now,’’ Hellickson said. “Eight runs is eight runs. That’s unacceptable.’’