ST. PETERSBURG — Stop if you've heard this one before …
Because Jeremy Hellickson apparently did.
Stop, that is, doing whatever was working remarkably well in the first five innings Thursday and instead start pitching incredibly poorly in the sixth, taking the Rays down with him for a 10-1 loss to the Royals.
"Pretty frustrated," Hellickson said.
While the Rays showed a video tribute to the 11,398 fans on hand to acknowledge the return of former ace James Shields, it was infielder Elliot Johnson who was the homecoming king, going 3-for-4 with a three-run homer in his first game as a visitor to the Trop.
"It's hard to describe the first time back," Johnson said. "I wish everyone would get a chance to understand what it's like. It's hard to put into words."
The Rays (35-31) were searching for words to explain how Hellickson could once again go from looking so good, allowing only a pair of singles over the first innings, to so bad in the sixth, allowing eight hits in a 10-batter span.
"A tale of two pitchers in one game: He was pitching well and all of a sudden it went away very quickly," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I can't say fatigue. I don't know that it's a lack of concentration. It's just execution.
"Here's a guy we're really used to him being able to execute pitches, getting out of jams, getting popups, things like that. The ball's not going in the right spot for him. I don't have any solid answers. I really don't."
Equally concerning, neither does Hellickson (4-3, 5.67 ERA), who has allowed a whopping .407 average when teams have runners in scoring position (and .538 when there are two outs).
"It's happened way too many times," Hellickson said. "I felt good. I thought I made some okay pitches there that got hit pretty hard. I really don't know what to say right now."
Hellickson is only part of the problem, as the Rays starters have a 9.47 ERA in the last turn through the rotation, and they have given up five or more runs 19 times, second most in the majors.
"We need all of our starters to pitch better," Maddon said.
It wasn't only frustrating on the mound for the Rays, as they were held to one hit into the sixth inning by Ervin Santana. Typically mild-mannered Sam Fuld struck out to end the game, and he threw his helmet and bat.
"Obviously the whole game sort of played into it, individually and teamwise," Fuld said.
Johnson, however, had plenty to say, including turning to a fan seated near the Rays dugout, whom he felt was heckling him too much.
Between Thursday and the two games in Kansas City, where he was 3-for-7 with his only other homer, Johnson is hitting .545 with two homers and four RBIs in three games against the Rays, and .202 with no homers and three RBIs in 39 games against everyone else.
"I've put together really, really good games, so it's good to get them any way you can, but it feels good to get them against them, of course," he said.
Hellickson said it didn't really matter that Johnson did the damage.
"Eight runs is eight runs," he said. "That's unacceptable."