Strong rotation, hot bats lift Rays to first

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For the first time since June 10 of last season, the Tampa Bay Rays are alone atop the AL East after a 10-6 win over the New York Yankees.

That sentence seemed like a pipe dream for Rays fans less than one month ago, following a June 28 loss to the Detroit Tigers that dropped them to seven games back in the division race.

Now the Rays are officially the hottest team in baseball, having won 20 of their last 23 games, the first time they have done that in franchise history.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Rays are the first AL East team since 1995 to move from seven games back to sole possession of first place in fewer than 25 games.

What has fueled this rapid rise to the top of the standings?

Starting pitching

The Rays rotation has a 2.13 ERA since June 29, by far the best mark in the majors and a full run better than any other AL team. They have accounted for an MLB-best 16 wins during this stretch and have held opponents to a .208 batting average, also the best in the majors since June 29.

Jeremy Hellickson With RISP
This Season

Friday’s starter, Jeremy Hellickson, has been nearly flawless during this run, going 4-0 with a 2.40 ERA in five starts.

Hellickson started this season in a slump, with a 5.67 ERA in his first 14 starts through the middle of June.

His turnaround started 10 days before the Rays’ recent run, throwing six innings of two-run ball on June 19 at Fenway Park. Over his last seven starts, Hellickson is 6-0 with a 2.09 ERA.

On Friday, the righty held the Yankees to just one hit in six at-bats with runners in scoring position, continuing a trend of success for Hellickson in that situation. Over his last seven starts, opponents have six singles in 31 at-bats with RISP and have put the ball on the ground two-thirds of the time.

Hot bats

It was no surprise to see Wil Myers and James Loney contributing a combined four hits and five RBI in Friday night's win. Since June 29 Loney is hitting .347 and Myers is at .346, the second- and third-best batting averages on the team and among the top 10 in the American League.

Myers has been even hotter in his last 10 games, going 20-for-41 (.488) with nine RBI. Both of his hits on Friday night came off fastballs, which he is crushing to the tune of a .522 batting average and a .870 slugging percentage in those 10 games.

Loney’s two hits against the Yankees were both line drives, including his homer in the seventh inning. That’s a formula that has worked well for him this season -- Loney ranks second in the majors in line drive percentage (27.2) and his 63 line-drive hits are tied for the second-most in MLB.