Superb pitching has the Tampa Bay Rays on the brink of overtaking the Boston Red Sox for the AL East lead.
Giving the ball to Jeremy Hellickson may keep the Rays rolling.
Hellickson looks to match his career-best winning streak Thursday night at Fenway Park and help the Rays move into first place this late in a season for the first time in three years.
After losing 6-2 on Tuesday, Tampa Bay (60-42) pulled within a half-game of Boston (61-42) again as David Price tossed a five-hitter in Wednesday's 5-1 victory.
Since being seven games back on June 28, the Rays have reeled off 19 wins in 22 games behind the pitching staff's 2.17 ERA and five complete games.
"It's just like hitting," Price said. "You hear it all the time - hitting is contagious. So is pitching. We've been on a good groove, It's been fun. We feel like we have five guys that can go out there and win anytime. I don't think there are many teams in the majors that can say that."
It'll be Hellickson (9-3, 4.62 ERA) on the hill as the Rays try to take this four-game set and reclaim the East lead for the first time since they were 5-3 on April 6. Tampa Bay hasn't been atop the division this late in a season since winning it in 2010.
The Rays should feel quite confident handing the ball to the right-hander, who's 5-0 with a 2.19 ERA over his last six starts. He won a career-high six straight decisions over 13 starts bridging 2011 and '12.
His current streak started with a 6-2 win at Boston on June 19, when he allowed two runs in six innings. He's 3-0 with a 3.68 ERA in six career starts at Fenway.
Hellickson enters this one after overcoming an illness Saturday, yielding two runs in five innings of a 4-3 victory at Toronto.
While the pitching has been brilliant during Tampa Bay's surge, rookie Wil Myers has given the offense a big boost. The right fielder has had multiple hits in his last six games and eight of his last nine, driving in a pair Wednesday.
He's 6 for 14 with two doubles and five RBIs over his past four games at Boston.
The Red Sox, meanwhile, have dropped five of eight while averaging 2.9 runs and batting .225.
Dustin Pedroia, who inked a $110 million, eight-year contract extension Wednesday, has been partly responsible for the offense's slump, going 1 for 19 over the past five games.
The All-Star second baseman is 4 for 28 in nine home meetings with Tampa Bay this season, going 0 for 9 in this series. He's also 5 for 28 with a homer versus Hellickson - 0 for 6 this year.
John Lackey (7-7, 2.95) has struggled against the Rays as well, going 0-3 with a 7.78 ERA over his past four starts. The right-hander allowed four runs and 10 hits - two homers - in 5 2-3 innings of a 10-8 win in 14 innings on June 10.
He can't be blamed entirely for losing two of his last three starts, compiling a 3.54 ERA with 21 strikeouts in 20 1-3 innings while the offense failed to give him any support in those defeats.
That was the scenario Saturday, when Lackey allowed four runs while fanning seven in 6 1-3 innings in a 5-2 loss to the New York Yankees.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
All Rights Reserved