ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays' swarming lineup was at it again Friday night, every starter getting a hit in an 8-3 drubbing of the last-place White Sox.
"With this offense," Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson said, "you never get down."
But as impressive as the Rays' bats have been — 36 runs over the past five games — manager Joe Maddon said the only way the Rays are going to move up in the American League East is if their starting pitching sets the tone.
And after another strong outing by Hellickson, in front of 15,825 at Tropicana Field, Tampa Bay's rotation is starting to return to its sparkling standard. Ace David Price is back. Tonight's starter, Matt Moore, has won three straight, and Roberto Hernandez and Chris Archer have made encouraging strides.
It's no coincidence that during a stretch in which the Rays have won nine of 12, they have given up a combined 28 runs. The starters have lasted at least six innings in 14 of their past 16 games, which Maddon says is a "greater formula for success."
"We've been much more consistent offensively and defensively," he said. "If we can get the pitching tied in like we can, it could be a very, very fun second half."
Hellickson (8-3) has rebounded from early struggles to win four straight starts, allowing a combined four earned runs.
He said he is pitching with more confidence in his fastball, and that is showing in how he attacks hitters. Friday, Hellickson matched his season high with nine strikeouts over seven innings.
"I think (Friday) was a good example of what I've been doing the last couple games, getting that big out when I need to," he said.
The Rays (47-40) gave him more than enough run support in a five-run second inning, in which they batted around and chased Dylan Axelrod. The big blows were back-to-back homers by Jose Molina (a two-run shot) and Kelly Johnson, and Desmond Jennings and Luke Scott picked up the first of their three hits each.
Maddon said a big part of the recent offensive success has been a disciplined, determined approach, accepting walks and not chasing bad pitches.
"We are just not expanding our strike zone," Maddon said.
Jennings continues to be the catalyst from the leadoff spot, with back-to-back three-hit games for the first time in his career. And he has been successful on his past six stolen base attempts, including twice Friday.
"He's starting to look like he's supposed to," Maddon said.
Evan Longoria played third base for the first time in a week, and first baseman James Loney extended his hitting streak to a career-high 16 games with two hits.
"It's a fun thing," Loney said.
Rookie rightfielder Wil Myers had a sacrifice fly and a RBI double as the Rays kept piling on. And Hellickson settled in, retiring the final six hitters he faced. Hellickson's recent roll, 6-1 with a 3.16 ERA over his past seven starts, has helped make the rotation whole.
"Matt (Moore) and (Alex Cobb) have been doing it the whole year," Hellickson said. "It was just a matter of myself picking it up and giving us some quality starts."