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Twins Gun for First Place in Series Opener at Tampa

Two teams with first place on their minds start a three- game series this evening, as the red-hot Minnesota Twins visit the Tampa Bay Rays in the opener of a four-game set at Tropicana Field.

Minnesota has won eight straight games and has climbed within a half-game of the Chicago White Sox in the American League Central, while the Rays come into tonight's tilt just a game back of New York in the East after taking two of three from the Yankees.

The Twins, though, will have the hottest pitcher in baseball on the hill this evening, as righty Carl Pavano attempts to win a career-best ninth straight decision. Pavano won his fourth straight start on Tuesday in Kansas City, holding the Royals to a run and five hits in five innings to run his record to 13-6, while lowering his earned run average to 3.21.

Pavano is 5-3 lifetime against the Rays with a 3.65 ERA in 11 starts.

Minnesota won for the 10th time in its last 11 games on Sunday, as Jason Kubel hit a three-run double to break a scoreless tie in the sixth, propelling the Twins to their second straight shutout of the Seattle Mariners, 4-0, to complete a three-game sweep.

The last time Minnesota won at least eight straight games was when it won 10 in a row from June 17-27, 2008.

Francisco Liriano (10-7) threw seven scoreless innings for the third consecutive start, allowing just two hits and two walks while fanning 11.

"I tried to get ahead in the count. I had good location with my slider and was able to put it where I wanted," Liriano "I'm very confident right now."

Tampa, meanwhile, bounced back from Saturday's disappointing loss to the Yankees to win the series with a 3-0 win on Sunday, backed by 7 1/3 scoreless innings from James Shields.

Shields (10-9) gave up four hits, struck out 11, and walked one to pick up the win for the Rays, who have won eight of nine to move within one game of the AL East-leading Yankees. A day after serving up the go-ahead home run in Saturday's loss, Rafael Soriano recorded the final three outs for his American League-best 20th save of the season.

Carl Crawford and Kelly Shoppach each had an RBI for the victors.

"I was pretty efficient with my pitches," Shields said. "That's a big series win for us."

Tonight, the Rays turn to one of their brightest prospects in 23-year-old righty Jeremy Hellickson, who will be making his major league debut. Hellickson, though, is not expected to remain in the rotation, but is being used to give Tampa's starters an extra day of rest between outings.

"I know his stuff's good," Tampa manager Joe Maddon said. "We know his stuff is good. He's been pitching well. He's going to be a major league pitcher for many years. He's going to be a big part of our future. We just get a chance to get a glimpse of the future a bit [on Monday]."

Hellickson leads the International League with 12 wins, a 2.45 ERA and 123 strikeouts. He pitched 22 consecutive scoreless innings for Triple-A Durham between May 19 and June 4, including a start against Pawtucket on May 24 in which he threw eight innings of one-hit ball for a 1-0 victory.

Tampa is 3-1 against the Twins this season.

Photographs by Micah Taylor, clairity, and Fibonacci Blue used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.