OAKLAND -- The Rays needed this one. At risk of suffering a three-game sweep at the hands of the A's on Wednesday afternoon, Jeremy Hellickson stepped up and the bats roared to life to earn a 7-3 win.
It was Tampa Bay's second straight series loss, but the Rays at least claimed one victory on the first and toughest leg of a three-city, 10-game road trip. They will rest up on Thursday before playing three against the Cubs and four against the Rangers.
After two sloppy Rays' showings at the Coliseum, the A's were the ones left scratching their heads. Hellickson's fourth start of 2014 was far and away his best, a seven-inning, one-run effort, and the offense handed young Sonny Gray the worst outing of his career.
"Today we started driving in runs," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "That's the big difference in the game. And then on top of that, Hellickson was outstanding."
Hellickson, who had not completed five innings in any of his three starts since returning from arthroscopic elbow surgery, allowed two hits and struck out three while walking none. He threw 62 of his 99 pitches for strikes, which enabled him to go seven innings for the first time since July 5 of last year.
"That looked like the  Rookie of the Year Hellickson right there," Maddon said. "Command of his fastball, his changeup, dropped some hooks in there when he wanted to. Actually thought he worked a little bit quicker. Everything was just right for him today. He had a great look about him."
"It's been a long time since I've felt good after a start," Hellickson said. "I can't really put my finger on what I did different. I felt the same, stuff was a little sharper, little better command. The fastball was definitely a lot better, it felt better coming out of my hand."
The Rays finished with 13 hits, 10 of which came against Gray in 4 1/3 frames. Gray, the American League Pitcher of the Month for July, had given up five earned runs in his previous six starts. On Wednesday, he gave up seven runs, six earned.
Tampa Bay's performance with runners in scoring position once again left plenty to be desired -- 3-for-14 on Wednesday, 4-for-29 in the series -- but after managing just one run in the opening three innings, the Rays made their hits count in the fourth and fifth.
Kevin Kiermaier belted a two-run homer in the fourth, his ninth of the season. That came after a rare infield single by Jose Molina, whom Kiermaier nearly passed between second and third base before slowing down dramatically to accommodate the 39-year-old catcher.
"[A's right fielder Josh Reddick] was just kind of nonchalantly going back, and I was like, 'He's camped.' And then I see it go over his head and bounce back into the field, so I kept running," Kiermaier said. "Once I get right around second base, Jose is right there, and I wasn't about to just stop and wait for him to get some distance and start going again, so I just did the slowest trot ever the whole way home.
"It was one of those things where I gave him a big hug [in the dugout]. I congratulated him on an infield hit. That was awesome."
In the fifth inning, the Rays capitalized on an error by shortstop Eric Sogard, who let the ball pop out of his glove on a force play. After Kiermaier was hit by a pitch, Desmond Jennings stepped up with the bases loaded and singled up the middle to plate a pair and send Gray to the dugout.
The Rays led 6-0 and never looked back. They scored once more in the fifth off Jesse Chavez, and Sogard homered for Oakland's lone run off Hellickson.
"It's just one of those things where we had a rough stretch there, really struggling with guys in scoring position, and today we took advantage of it and a couple hard hits went our way," Kiermaier said. "It's always easier to play with a lead, and that's what we did early on. It kind of just carried throughout the game."
Ben Zobrist went 3-for-4 with a walk and an RBI, Kiermaier drove in three, and Molina and Yunel Escobar had two hits apiece. Among the starting nine, only Matt Joyce went hitless.
"That's nice when you get contributions up and down the lineup," said Maddon, "but it's all set up by Hellickson. Outstanding today."
Grant Balfour gave up two runs with two outs in the ninth before retiring Alberto Callaspo to end it. His ERA rose to 5.23 -- but that could not spoil an all-around satisfying day for the Rays, who moved to 55-59.
"We have all the ingredients to be really good from here on out, absolutely," Maddon said. "Are we a playoff contending team? Absolutely. Do I think we can do it? Absolutely. It's not going to be easy."
Aaron Leibowitz is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.