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HOU@KC: Santana fans six over seven in 100th victory

The Royals were able to eke out a series victory over their American League Central rivals this week, scoring opportunistic runs against a dominant Tigers pitching staff.

It doesn't get any easier for the Royals on Thursday, when they begin a four-game series with the Rays at Tropicana Field.

"We do feel good," said Royals manager Ned Yost, whose team has won seven of eight. "We feel like our offense is starting to turn the corner a little bit and our defense has been spectacular."

After dealing with the Tigers' strong rotation, the Royals face another challenge against Rays right-hander Jeremy Hellickson, who is 1-0 with a 2.66 ERA in four career appearances against the Royals. Kansas City has been held to three runs or fewer in four straight games but has won three. The Royals are 10-28 when plating less than four runs, compared to 20-5 when reaching that mark.

Hellickson has a 5.18 ERA this season, struggling to escape from jams before they snowball into big innings. That's something he has excelled at in the past. However, he didn't need to do much of it on Sunday, when he held the Orioles to four hits and no walks over six scoreless innings and struck out five.

"I'm just keeping the ball down throughout the whole game," said Hellickson, who has not allowed a home run in consecutive starts after serving up at least one in the previous seven straight. "I've made a few mistakes, but they haven't cost me like they were earlier in the year. It's just keeping the ball down, that's the main thing the last few games."

Rays manager Joe Maddon saw Hellickson post a 3.02 ERA in 60 starts from 2011-12 and believes the 26-year-old's key to success is simple.

"I'll repeat it 100 times this year if I have to: When he throws his fastball down and his changeup down, he gets good results," Maddon said. "I think, for the most part, he's been pitching more to the edges with the ball up, and that's where the homer has been and that's where the inconsistency has been. But when he's throwing the fastball down, I don't care if it's in or out, to the right or the left, just if it's down and the changeups off of that, he is really good."

Hellickson's counterpart, Royals right-hander Ervin Santana, earned his 100th career victory his last time out against the Astros, holding Houston to two runs in seven innings. He's pitched at least six innings in all 12 starts this season, including going seven-or-more innings in his last five.

Royals: Going deep
• Royals starters have worked at least six innings 47 times through 64 games already this season after not reaching that mark until Aug. 7 (Game 109) of last year.

• Catcher Salvador Perez has an eight-game hitting streak, during which he's batting .367.

• Yost will miss Thursday's game to attend his daughter's wedding in Atlanta. Bench coach Chino Cadahia will manage in the skipper's absence.

Rays: Escobar making up ground
• After a rough start to his Rays career, shortstop Yunel Escobar has turned things around. Starting with a 2-for-4 game on May 12, he is batting .327 with eight doubles, two home runs and 19 RBIs, bringing his season average to .251.

Combined with his defense, Maddon sees a player he thinks could wind up at the Midsummer Classic.

"He has played a very high level of shortstop, and I really believe he is working his way into consideration for the All-Star team," Maddon said.

• Before a 2-1 loss to the Red Sox on Wednesday, the Rays had scored seven or more runs in four straight games, matching a club record. The Rays have scored at least seven runs in nine of their last 17 contests.

Worth noting
• Santana is 5-6 with a 5.47 ERA in 13 starts against Tampa Bay.

• The Rays have won six of their last nine games at Tropicana Field.

• Tampa Bay entered Wednesday with an American League-leading .304 average with runners in scoring position but went 0-for-7 against the Red Sox.

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