ST. PETERSBURG -- Elliot Johnson had been in two similar situations earlier Monday night, with two outs on the board and a chance to drive in the tiebreaking run.
Johnson was thrust into the third spot in the Rays' order after Evan Longoria exited with left knee soreness in the third inning, and he failed to capitalize on opportunities in the fifth and 10th innings. He had struck out on a foul bunt, then again on a swing for the fences.
He found himself there once again in the 12th but made no such mistake the third time around, scoring Ben Zobrist from second on his first career walk-off hit off Mariners closer Brandon League as the Rays beat the Mariners, 3-2, before a crowd of 9,458 at Tropicana Field.
"Thank goodness I got the third opportunity to do it and I came through," Johnson said. "Obviously disappointed with the first two, and they didn't work out for me. Finishing off the day with the good one, I'll take that anytime. If it's going to end up in a walk-off win, I'm going to take it every single time. I'd do it the same way again."
Johnson said he was just looking to put the ball where nobody was playing. If anything, he said he was fortunate he didn't hit it harder so it didn't rocket to left fielder Chone Figgins. But it got down, and Zobrist had enough time to slide home safely.
"If they're not hitting the ball on the ground, and I'm a ground-ball pitcher, good things usually don't happen," League said.
It was Johnson's first hit at home this season and his first RBI since Aug. 27, 2011. While Longoria's injury seemed to dampen the clubhouse spirits afterward, the Rays still romped through their usual celebration, with Johnson laughing that he was nearly "depantsed" on the field.
"That's the way we celebrate here," Johnson said. "It's a lot of fun, and I'll take it every single night if I get the opportunity to do it."
Before Johnson's winner, it appeared the Rays had already missed too many opportunities to escape their first extra-inning game of 2012 with a win. Seattle had taken a 2-1 lead in the top of the 11th when Jesus Montero launched a homer to right field off right-hander Wade Davis. But B.J. Upton tied the score with a two-out single to right later that inning, scoring pinch-runner Jeff Keppinger.
That sent the game to the 12th. Zobrist drew a one-out walk -- his third of the game -- and moved to second on a single from Carlos Pena. Despite Longoria's injury, Johnson's missed opportunities and the fact that the Rays got home around 4 a.m. Monday morning, manager Joe Maddon said the team stayed positive as Johnson walked up to the plate.
"That comes from support. I really believe that. I believe that only happens because you continue to show support in Elliot," Maddon said. "When things don't go right or go awry, they don't feel like people are crashing down on them, and I think that's a good thing. In that moment, I think EJ was able to elevate his game based on the tough times he had prior to that, but everybody supported him through that. I think that's a big part of our success."
Or, as Upton put it: "That's us. That's why you play the whole game, man. Baseball's too based on failure to dwell on things. He came back when we needed him in a big situation and got it right."
Before the late-inning drama, Jeremy Hellickson and Felix Hernandez left a lengthy trail of zeros on the scoreboard. Hellickson retired 10 Mariners between the third and sixth innings. The only baserunners he allowed after Miguel Olivo's second-inning homer came via singles, and none of them reached second base.
In all, Hellickson allowed one run on six hits and no walks while striking out a season-high seven over seven innings. He attributed his success to his improved fastball command. He was able to keep everything down in the zone, making his changeup more effective. He didn't use his cutter as often after Olivo bashed one for a homer, but that was primarily because he stayed ahead in the count.
Hellickson left after only 97 pitches for several reasons. Maddon said he would like to keep Hellickson's pitch count lower at this point then give him a little more freedom as the season progresses. It was also an ideal moment to bring in lefty Jake McGee, and he responded with a scoreless inning.
Fernando Rodney followed McGee with another zero, Davis pitched a scoreless 10th before giving up the homer to Montero in the 11th and J.P. Howell picked up the win with a scoreless 12th. All that set up Johnson, the night's unlikely hero.
"It was awesome," Hellickson said. "I knew EJ was going to be involved in something there, coming up with runners on in big situations, and he really came through."