ST. PETERSBURG — The home run Casey Kotchman hit to centerfield on the first pitch of the ninth inning that gave the Rays a 2-1 victory over the Royals on Monday may have been his second most impressive feat of the night.
During his postgame TV interview with Sun Sports' Todd Kalas, Kotchman, focused as always, somehow sensed Evan Longoria approaching with the now-traditional whipped cream facial and threw up his right hand to block the delivery.
"Fastest I've ever seen him move," Longoria said.
Kotchman's blast — estimated at an impressive 416 feet — turned what was a somewhat uneventful and potentially unsuccessful night into a celebration for the Tropicana Field gathering of 10,742, the fourth smallest crowd of the season.
Jeremy Hellickson, after a rough start, delivered a solid seven-plus inning outing — "Fantastic," manager Joe Maddon said — with Joel Peralta and Kyle Farnsworth providing solid relief as the Rays improved to 60-54 and moved back within 9½ games of the wild card-leading Yankees.
But Kotchman, the Seminole High product, was the story, not just for his first career walkoff homer (and second game-ending hit) but for the latest entry in his remarkable renaissance season.
"This is a little bit above and beyond,'' Maddon said. "All of a sudden he just turns into a different animal right now.''
With three hits, Kotchman improved his average to .341, second in the majors, and extended his hitting streak to a season high-tying eight games. And after hitting .217 in Seattle last season, he is making a push for the greatest one-season improvement in AL history — currently the 126 points George Burns added from 1917 in Detroit to 1918 with the A's.
And all this after signing a minor-league deal with the Rays and opening the season at Triple-A Durham until Manny Ramirez's "retirement" created an opening and starting first baseman Dan Johnson's extended struggles provided the opportunity for more playing time.
"It seems like every time he goes up he has a great at-bat and makes hard contact,'' Longoria said.
The Royals scored in the first and the Rays tied it in the seventh — on Kotchman's RBI single — and it stayed that way until the bottom of the ninth, when Kansas City reliever Blake Wood took the mound on his 26th birthday.
"What a present," Wood said. "It's unbelievable. It's the first time I've ever been walked off. Not a whole lot to say.''
Kotchman, with three homers in his past six games and seven for the season, said he didn't know it was gone. "No chance," he said. "I thought it was going to be caught."
The celebration was more complicated. As Kotchman, "kind of numb" rounding the bases, neared home, pitcher David Price and outfielder Justin Ruggiano threw large wads of gum they were chewing on the plate.
Despite teammates pounding him, Kotchman saw it and tried to stay clear: "I was kind of distracted. That's probably not real sanitary."
Then Kotchman — who credits a major portion of his success to an off-season procedure that cleared out his tear ducts — had to deal with the waiting whipped cream.
"Longo tried," Kotchman said. "I'm glad he didn't get me. It might've messed up my eyes again."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.