The Cleveland Indians ' sizzling offense has been a major reason for the team's solid stretch over the last week.
The Tampa Bay Rays ' struggling lineup may want to take notes.
Cleveland seeks its fifth victory in its last six games when it hosts Tampa Bay in the opener of a four-game series Thursday night.
The Indians (42-39) have outscored opponents 38-18 over their last five contests after beating the Los Angeles Angels 12-3 on Wednesday, as each starter recorded at least one hit.
Michael Brantley and Casey Kotchman each hit a three-run homer for Cleveland, which has averaged 7.6 runs while hitting .342 in its last seven games. Shin-Soo Choo is 12 for 27 (.444) over his last six.
Travis Hafner went 1 for 3 with two walks Wednesday in his first game since having right knee surgery May 31, and manager Manny Acta welcomed his presence in the lineup.
"We had a lot of quality at-bats and you could see Hafner's effect right away," Acta said.
Johnny Damon had a season-high three hits. The veteran batted .261 in 150 games for Tampa Bay in 2011, and his former team isn't playing nearly as well as his current squad lately.
The Rays (43-39) are averaging 3.1 runs and hitting .217 while dropping seven of their last 10, including a 4-3 loss to the Yankees on Wednesday.
Luke Scott went 0 for 4 and is hitless in his last 36 at-bats - one short of the team record set by Jose Cruz Jr. in 2004.
Tampa Bay, though, has won 10 of the last 12 home meetings with Cleveland, and it will look to get its offense going against Indians starter Josh Tomlin , who hasn't pitched well recently.
Tomlin (4-5, 5.85 ERA) got a lift Saturday from his offense, which helped him score an 11-5 win over Baltimore after he allowed five runs and seven hits while issuing a season-high three walks in six innings.
The right-hander is 1-2 with an 8.24 ERA over his last four starts, allowing at least five runs in three of those outings. He went 0-1 with a 5.25 ERA in two starts versus the Rays in 2011 in his only career outings against them.
Jeremy Hellickson will oppose Tomlin hoping to stay healthy while getting back in the win column.
Hellickson (4-4, 3.44) is 0-4 with a 4.45 ERA in his last six starts since beating Boston on May 16. He left Saturday's 6-2 loss to Detroit in the third inning, when he took a line drive off his right shin.
Hellickson, who was making his first start since a stint on the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation, said he's ready for Thursday's outing despite some lingering pain.
"I wasn't too concerned," Hellickson told the Rays' official website. "I knew I was going to be sore, but it was just a bruise."
The right-hander allowed three hits in seven innings of a 7-0 win over the Indians on May 29, 2011, in his only career start against them, but he's well aware of Cleveland's recent hot hitting.
"It's a heavy left-handed lineup," Hellickson said. "They've got a lot of guys that put the ball in play and a few guys in there that hit for power. All in all, it's a very solid lineup."
|Tampa Bay Rays|
|July 02, 2012||Hideki Matsui||Day-to-Day||Left game - left hamstring tightness|
|June 30, 2012||Jeremy Hellickson||Day-to-Day||Left game - bruised right shin|
|June 29, 2012||David Price||Day-to-Day||Left game - lower back tightness|
|June 20, 2012||Matt Joyce||15-Day DL||Strained left oblique|
|June 17, 2012||Matt Joyce||Day-to-Day||Flu|
|June 15, 2012||Jeremy Hellickson||15-Day DL||Right shoulder fatigue|
|June 30, 2012||Lonnie Chisenhall||15-Day DL||Fractured right ulna - out 4-6 weeks|
|June 29, 2012||Lonnie Chisenhall||Day-to-Day||Fractured right ulna - out 4-6 weeks|
|June 05, 2012||Jose Lopez||Day-to-Day||Sore lower back|
|May 27, 2012||Jack Hannahan||15-Day DL||Strained left calf|
|May 27, 2012||Jack Hannahan||15-Day DL||Strained left calf|
|May 26, 2012||Carlos Santana||7-Day DL||Concussion|
CLEVELAND (AP) -- Despite some flaws, the Indians are staying near the top of the AL Central.
Shin-Soo Choo's leading the way.
Thriving at the plate since moving into the leadoff spot in May for Cleveland, Choo set the tone by homering to open the first inning and Josh Tomlin pitched seven stellar innings as the Indians beat the Tampa Bay Rays 3-1 on Thursday night for their sixth win in eight games.
After trying out four other players in the No. 1 slot, manager Manny Acta moved Choo to the top of the batting order. It may be his best decision all season.
"He was the ideal guy," Acta said. "He's a natural for that."
In 48 games as the leadoff hitter, Choo is batting .327 (64 of 196) with eight homers, 20 RBIs and 42 runs. He has raised his average 60 points from .235 to .295.
"He's been phenomenal," said Michael Brantley , who spent 22 games as the primary leadoff hitter before Choo took over. "It's nice to have somebody on base with the two, three, four guys coming up. It gives us a big boost, it's going to create more runs and hopefully he can keep swinging it the way he is. He looks real good."
Brantley connected for a homer in the second off Jeremy Hellickson (4-5) and Travis Hafner homered in the eighth to lead the Indians, who stayed within two games of first-place Chicago.
Tomlin (5-5) limited the Rays to one run and two hits, easily the right-hander's best outing since April. He didn't allow a walk, struck out three 58 of 88 pitches for strikes.
"It feels good to contribute," said Tomlin, who missed three weeks earlier this season with a wrist injury. "It's nice to be able to help the team win."
Vinnie Pestano worked the eighth and All-Star closer Chris Perez finished up for his 24th save - all in a row since blowing one on opening day.
The struggling Rays have lost eight of 10, fell to 4-13 against the AL Central and have scored more than four runs once in the last 11 games.
"This was just a good ballgame that was lost," said Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon. "I have no problem with the way we played. Their guy (Tomlin) has been tough against us. He was sharp. Knowing that we have not been prodigious offensively probably gave him the confidence to throw more strikes."
Luke Scott went 0 for 3 and set the Rays' record by going 39 straight at-bats without a hit.
Hafner gave Cleveland a big insurance run in the eighth, connecting off McGee. It was only Hafner's second game back after missing a month following surgery on his right knee. His towering homer into the right-field seats was his seventh this season and first since May 23.
The Indians have been waiting for Tomlin to regain his consistency. He pounded the strike zone against Tampa Bay, retiring the side in order five times and getting a big assist from Choo to end the sixth.
With two outs, Rays outfielder Ben Zobrist hit a drive to right that pushed Choo up to the wall before he made a staggering, backpedalling catch.
Scott exemplifies Tampa's offensive woes.
Maddon played Scott, the team's usual designated hitter, in the field for the first time this season, hoping a change of scenery would shake him out of his prolonged slump. However, Scott stayed hitless since June 1 by grounding out, fouling out and flying out to Choo before being lifted.
Scott broke the previous club record of 37 consecutive hitless at-bats held by Jose Cruz Jr. (2004), and he's closing on the major league record of 46 set last year by Eugenio Velez .
"I would rather take a beating and be bleeding in the street than go through this," Scott said. "It is humbling and very deflating. I take it personally that I am not helping my team."
Choo led off the first with his ninth homer, and fourth in the No. 1 slot, driving a 2-0 pitch from Hellickson over the wall in right.
Brantley made it 2-0 in the second with his third homer - and second in two days.
The Rays closed within 2-1 in the fifth. With one out, Will Rhymes hit a ball to deep right that just missed leaving the field and caromed off the wall. By the time Choo ran it down, Rhymes was at third with a stand-up triple. Jose Molina followed with an RBI groundout.
Tampa Bay could have threatened in the eighth when Elliot Johnson lined a single into the left-field corner off Pestano with one out, but he was thrown out trying to stretch into a double it by left fielder Aaron Cunningham , who came in as defensive replacement for Johnny Damon an inning earlier.
NOTES: Cleveland hadn't hit three solo homers since Aug. 30, 2006 .... On Friday, the Indians will honor Hall of Famer Larry Doby by renaming a street near Progressive Field "Larry Doby Way" in honor of him breaking the AL's color barrier 65 years ago. ... The Rays have started a pitcher age 30 or younger in 979 consecutive games, a major league record. The last Tampa Bay pitcher over 30 was Mark Hendrickson , who was 32 when he started on June 25, 2006, against Atlanta. ... Rays OF Matt Joyce , out since June 20 with a strained left oblique, was eligible to come off the disabled list Thursday. Instead, he was sent home with a stiff back, the result of sliding during a rehab game. "It's nothing awful, but he's just not able to compete before the All-Star break," Maddon said.