Elarton tossed his best start in several weeks, but was outdone by Devil Rays starter J.P. Howell, and the Royals lost, 5-1, against the Devil Rays at Tropicana Field.
"Today, I felt like I made some progress," Elarton said. "I would like to say that I am right back to where I need to be, but that is really not the case. There is something to be said about coming back here and getting in a groove again. I felt like I made progress today."
So did Howell -- against a team he knew very well. A Royals first-round sandwich draft pick in 2004, Howell was considered a possible staple in Kansas City's rotation. He made the team in 2005 and made 15 starts for the Royals, compiling a 3-5 record and 6.19 ERA. Deemed expendable, Dayton Moore -- in one of his first moves as general manager -- sent Howell to Tampa Bay for Joey Gathright and Fernando Cortez.
Howell had spent all of 2007 in the Minors and made his first Major League start of the season Sunday. The left-hander baffled Kansas City's lineup all day, tossing a career-high eight innings and only allowing five baserunners.
"The main thing with J.P. was that he didn't walk anybody," manager Buddy Bell said. "We helped him out with a couple situations, but J.P. throws strikes and we know how he competes. It's not like we haven't seen it before."
Nearly every member of the Royals' starting lineup had seen Howell pitch. Few could hit him hard, yielding a tough game and a somber, quiet clubhouse. No music. No TV. Mark Teahen and Jason LaRue were among several players that barely moved, sitting in chairs and staring off into space.
"He did everything," LaRue said. "He doesn't throw hard. The kid did a good job of keeping the ball down."
One night after scoring nine runs, the Royals scored one against Howell, which marked the fourth time in the last eight games Kansas City tallied one run or fewer.
"That was definitely a well-done script on his part," Devil Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I knew he wanted to pitch well against the Royals in his first outing against them. His location was definitely very good. I thought he was calmer today than I have seen in the past."
Howell dodged trouble on several occasions and only permitted one run: a solo homer by LaRue in the fifth inning.
"I was just looking to make contact," LaRue said.
The Royals only threatened once, loading the bases with one out in the fourth inning. In the past two nights, that situation usually yielded a rally and several runs. Not against Howell. The left-hander struck out Ryan Shealy and coaxed a flyout from Tony Pena.
"I was just pitching really [well]," Howell said. "I was just trying to turn it up a notch [when runners were on]. With guys on, you've got to attack a little harder and stronger. I'm trying to keep this train moving forward. I was going right after the hitter and hitting my spots."
After Esteban German doubled in the fifth, Howell and Rays closer Al Reyes retired the next 15 batters. Even Kansas City's hottest hitters did little. The always consistent Teahen went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, Pena saw his 11-game hitting streak end and Shealy suffered his first three-strikeout contest in nearly a month.
Pitching-wise, though, Elarton saw improvements, permitting four runs in 5 2/3 innings. Facing his career nemesis, the right-hander entered Sunday with a 0-5 with a 9.13 ERA against Tampa Bay. He reversed the career trend and helped turn his season around, too, allowing just seven baserunners and one walk, both season lows.
"Absolutely, he made progress," LaRue said. "Today was better than his last outing. He just has to keep doing what he is doing. Get better with each outing that you get a chance to throw."
Elarton allowed several loud outs, including a great catch in the fourth by David DeJesus. Ty Wigginton smacked a deep fly ball into the left-center-field gap, which juts back from the rest of the field. DeJesus went back and, while slamming into the wall, made a one-handed, over-the-shoulder grab.
Three pitches later, Elarton threw a pitch that no one caught, as Delmon Young smacked a homer into the left-center-field seats, giving the Devil Rays a 2-0 lead. The Rays scored twice more in the sixth off Elarton and Joel Peralta, and added a Carlos Pena solo home run, which provided the final margin.
"I need to be getting in a rhythm and staying in a rhythm," Elarton said. "Today, I was in and out of it, but I was in it more than I was out of it. I maintain that is the toughest thing to do."
But Howell made it look easy, frustrating his former team and giving the Royals their first loss since Wednesday.
Conor Nicholl is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.