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TB@SEA: Hellickson hurls seven frames of one-run ball

The Royals are rolling through a successful August, having won three of their last four series and splitting the other, all against teams in the thick of the playoff race.

Kansas City hopes to win another when it travels to Tampa Bay to take on the Rays at Tropicana Field for a three-game set beginning Monday.

Despite the Royals' recent success and having swept the Rays in their only other series this season, manager Ned Yost still believes his club hasn't quite tapped its potential.

"We're just trying to get back on track, finish the season off strong," Yost said. "That's our goal, and we're doing OK at it right now. We have a long way to go, still have a long road ahead of us. We've got to continue to stay focused on it, playing good, consistent baseball."

Yost is sending out Will Smith to take the mound in search of Kansas City's fourth straight win. Since rejoining the Royals' rotation July 19, the lefty is 3-2 with a 3.69 ERA.

Smith is coming off a pair of wins in which he allowed two runs and went seven innings in each. The more recent of the two was a 3-2 victory over Oakland, against whom he gave up the pair of runs on five hits and a walk to go with five strikeouts.

While the Royals probably don't want to leave the comforts of Kauffman Stadium, the Rays may not even want to head back home after going 8-2 on their road trip against the Twins, Mariners and Angels. To make matters worse, the Rays will be coming from the West Coast, and manager Joe Maddon said the time change could affect his squad throughout the series.

"It's a scheduling thing and it's not easy ... because it's not just about [Monday]," Maddon said. "Tuesday's going to be even worse, in regards to energy level. So the first two or three days back are a huge concern to me."

Jeremy Hellickson will be on the bump opposing Smith, and he pitched a gem in a losing effort last time out. That, of course, was in a 1-0 loss to Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, who threw the 23rd perfect game in Major League history.

Hellickson lasted seven innings in that start, allowing one run on five hits and a walk with one punchout. He's won three of his last five starts after not picking up any wins in his previous nine.

"Fastball and fastball command, he threw it, he threw it," Maddon said. "He had a good fastball velocity wise. And I think he was throwing it in good spots. The other stuff was fine, but I think he threw his fastball well."

Royals: Bullpen mowing down hitters
Though it didn't see much time with starter Jeremy Guthrie's performance in Sunday's 5-2 win over the White Sox, the Kansas City bullpen has picked up the team this season.

In particular, Royals relievers have specialized in the strikeout, leading the American League with 413 of them. While no AL team has used its bullpen more than the Royals, the team's relievers have still combined for 23 punchouts in the last six games -- despite starters lasting at least six innings in each.

"The word's out on our 'pen," Yost said. "You talk to any team about our team, and they don't want our bullpen involved in it. And they know that if our bullpen gets involved that it's going to be real difficult for them to do any damage. The word's definitely out. I wouldn't know if it's an intimidation, but it's an admiration for what they can do."

Tim Collins, Greg Holland and Kelvin Herrera all rank in the top 17 in baseball for strikeouts by a reliever.

Rays: Howell overcomes adversity to set mark
While closer Fernando Rodney's season has been nothing short of spectacular, what fellow reliever J.P. Howell has done might be even more noteworthy.

After missing the entire 2010 season because of shoulder surgery, the 29-year-old came back last year and struggled, compiling a 6.16 ERA in 30 2/3 innings. Those struggles continued early on in 2012, but Howell has recovered incredibly, having not allowed a run since June 13 while breaking the team's record of 23 consecutive scoreless innings after a scoreless ninth Saturday.

"I was just thinking about how bad it got last year," Howell said. "My wife witnessed it in the stands. So it's funny for us to look back and kind of clean our hands off from all of that and say that now we can move forward and keep it rolling. It's the first time in a while where it's fun to look back."

Worth noting:
• Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar became the first player to record four infield singles since Roberto Alomar in 2003. He followed that up with a 1-for-4 performance Sunday.

• Rays pitchers allowed 21 runs in the first three games of the season series to the Royals. They allowed just 30 during the team's 10-game road trip.

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