CLEVELAND — Jeremy Hellickson said that by now, the fact that the Rays have an explosive offense is "old news."
After all, they've racked up more runs than any team in the American League since April 17 and are the fourth-highest scoring club in the majors.
But it doesn't make it any less appreciated by Hellickson, who watched the Rays turn a one-run game in the middle innings into an 11-3 blowout of the Indians on Sunday in front of 18,106 at Progressive Field.
"The offense is unbelievable right now," the right-hander said. "They're making our job a lot easier."
Tampa Bay (31-25) has won seven of eight to move 2½ games behind the first-place Red Sox in the AL East pending Boston's late game against the Yankees. And a big reason why is a confident and contagious feeling throughout the lineup, which in years past had to scratch and claw for each run but now has just three fewer than the Miguel Cabrera-led Tigers.
"It's night and day from what it was the last couple years," rightfielder Matt Joyce said. "I think the last couple years, we really put a lot of pressure on ourselves to score runs, so maybe it was one of those things that guys tensed up and tried a little bit harder. But it's almost a feeling this year that we expect to score runs."
It's the balance, and contact ability, of the Rays lineup that sets it apart from its predecessors, and outfielder Sam Fuld said Sunday was a shining example, with the 7-8-9 hitters going a combined 7-for-14. That included Fuld (2-for-5), catcher Jose Lobaton (2-for-4) and shortstop Yunel Escobar, who had three hits, including a two-run homer in the sixth that made it 7-3.
Escobar, who struggled to start the season, is batting .342 since May 11.
"I just never lost confidence," Escobar said, with bench coach Dave Martinez interpreting. "I knew I've been hitting the ball hard and making outs. I told myself that things will just turn."
The game took a turn on Hellickson in the fourth, when the Indians scored three with two outs to pull within 4-3. The Rays made a couple of defensive miscues, with second baseman Ben Zobrist not fielding a grounder cleanly and Fuld and Joyce allowing Yan Gomes' fly to the right-center warning track drop between them for an RBI double.
"We have to make those plays, that's who we are," manager Joe Maddon said. "And that permitted them to get back into it. Fortunately, the offense continued to swarm."
Hellickson threw the ball better, and lower, than in his last outing and kept the ball in the yard after giving up homers in seven straight starts. Maddon said if the Rays didn't have an off day today, Hellickson might have lasted longer than five innings (and 82 pitches). But he wanted to get Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta and Fernando Rodney some action, and each pitched a scoreless inning.
"It's nice to go a little deeper," Hellickson said. "But we have a good bullpen and want to keep them right there."
The Rays added on from there, including Evan Longoria's two-run blast in the eighth, snapping his career-long streak of 19 games without a homer. "Everybody is swinging the bat well," Longoria said. "And it seems like if one guy doesn't get it done, the next guy that comes up is getting it done. It makes it really fun."