CLEVELAND -- Despite some flaws, the Indians are staying near the top of the AL Central.
Shin-Soo Choo's leading the way.
Thriving at the plate since moving into the leadoff spot in May for Cleveland, Choo set the tone by homering to open the first inning and Josh Tomlin pitched seven stellar innings as the Indians beat the Tampa Bay Rays 3-1 on Thursday night for their sixth win in eight games.
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After trying out four other players in the No. 1 slot, manager Manny Acta moved Choo to the top of the batting order. It may be his best decision all season.
"He was the ideal guy," Acta said. "He's a natural for that."
In 48 games as the leadoff hitter, Choo is batting .327 (64 of 196) with eight homers, 20 RBI and 42 runs. He has raised his average 60 points from .235 to .295.
"He's been phenomenal," said Michael Brantley, who spent 22 games as the primary leadoff hitter before Choo took over. "It's nice to have somebody on base with the two, three, four guys coming up. It gives us a big boost, it's going to create more runs and hopefully he can keep swinging it the way he is. He looks real good."
Tomlin (5-5) limited the Rays to one run and two hits, easily the right-hander's best outing since April. He didn't allow a walk, struck out three 58 of 88 pitches for strikes.
"It feels good to contribute," said Tomlin, who missed three weeks earlier this season with a wrist injury. "It's nice to be able to help the team win."
The struggling Rays have lost eight of 10, fell to 4-13 against the AL Central and have scored more than four runs once in the last 11 games.
"This was just a good ballgame that was lost," said Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon. "I have no problem with the way we played. Their guy [Tomlin] has been tough against us. He was sharp. Knowing that we have not been prodigious offensively probably gave him the confidence to throw more strikes."
Luke Scott went 0 for 3 and set the Rays' record by going 39 straight at-bats without a hit.
Hafner gave Cleveland a big insurance run in the eighth, connecting off McGee. It was only Hafner's second game back after missing a month following surgery on his right knee. His towering homer into the right-field seats was his seventh this season and first since May 23.
The Indians have been waiting for Tomlin to regain his consistency. He pounded the strike zone against Tampa Bay, retiring the side in order five times and getting a big assist from Choo to end the sixth.
With two outs, Rays outfielder Ben Zobrist hit a drive to right that pushed Choo up to the wall before he made a staggering, backpedalling catch.
Scott exemplifies Tampa's offensive woes.
Maddon played Scott, the team's usual designated hitter, in the field for the first time this season, hoping a change of scenery would shake him out of his prolonged slump. However, Scott stayed hitless since June 1 by grounding out, fouling out and flying out to Choo before being lifted.
Scott broke the previous club record of 37 consecutive hitless at-bats held by Jose Cruz Jr. (2004), and he's closing on the major league record of 46 set last year by Eugenio Velez.
"I would rather take a beating and be bleeding in the street than go through this," Scott said. "It is humbling and very deflating. I take it personally that I am not helping my team."
Choo led off the first with his ninth homer, and fourth in the No. 1 slot, driving a 2-0 pitch from Hellickson over the wall in right.
Brantley made it 2-0 in the second with his third homer -- and second in two days.
The Rays closed within 2-1 in the fifth. With one out, Will Rhymes hit a ball to deep right that just missed leaving the field and caromed off the wall. By the time Choo ran it down, Rhymes was at third with a stand-up triple. Jose Molina followed with an RBI groundout.
Tampa Bay could have threatened in the eighth when Elliot Johnson lined a single into the left-field corner off Pestano with one out, but he was thrown out trying to stretch into a double it by left fielder Aaron Cunningham, who came in as defensive replacement for Johnny Damon an inning earlier.
- Cleveland hadn't hit three solo homers since Aug. 30, 2006
- On Friday, the Indians will honor Hall of Famer Larry Doby by renaming a street near Progressive Field "Larry Doby Way" in honor of him breaking the AL's color barrier 65 years ago.
- The Rays have started a pitcher age 30 or younger in 979 consecutive games, a major league record. The last Tampa Bay pitcher over 30 was Mark Hendrickson, who was 32 when he started on June 25, 2006, against Atlanta.
- Rays OF Matt Joyce, out since June 20 with a strained left oblique, was eligible to come off the disabled list Thursday. Instead, he was sent home with a stiff back, the result of sliding during a rehab game. "It's nothing awful, but he's just not able to compete before the All-Star break," Maddon said.