ST. PETERSBURG -- Jeremy Hellickson earned American League Rookie of the Year honors for his work in 2011.
On Sunday afternoon, the cool right-hander picked up where he left off by calmly carving up the Yankees on his 25th birthday, leading the way in a 3-0 Rays win at Tropicana Field with 30,413 watching.
"That was a good birthday present right there," the understated Hellickson said.
The win gave the Rays their third sweep of the Yankees in club history for series of three games or more. In addition, the Rays have now won seven straight games against their AL East rivals. Tampa Bay has also matched its best start in franchise history at 3-0, tying the previous mark set in 2002, when the club swept the Tigers in a three-game series to start the season.
"We played really well for three games in a row, and the pitching tonight, Jeremy really permitted that," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "The bullpen was a little bit taxed because of yesterday's game. But he was outstanding. We had just enough offense, worked some good at-bats, played some defense -- we played well for the first three games."
Hellickson set a high bar for himself in 2011, when he went 13-10 with a 2.95 ERA, but Maddon noted before the start of the season that Hellickson could actually improve. Maddon called attention to the righty's work against left-handers and pointed out that improvement against lefty hitters would make Hellickson an even better pitcher.
Well, Hellickson allowed three hits on Sunday, one to a right-handed hitter and two to left-handers en route to his first win of the season.
"And they're pretty good left-handed hitters -- they're very good left-handed hitters he saw out there today," Maddon said. "[Curtis] Granderson, [Robinson] Cano, [Mark] Teixeira, [Nick] Swisher -- that's a great left-handed lineup there. Again, he has the ability to work through that. I think he gets in trouble when he tries to be too fine with everything.
"He got into that trap for just a couple of pitches, but overall, he pretty much knew in the back of his mind, 'I have to challenge these guys, keep my fastball in the zone and if I do that, [I'm] going to get a lot of bad swings, or chases, off his changeup.'"
Hellickson said he felt "really good" and commanded the strike zone.
"I've got to throw more strikes than I did, but I made good pitches when I needed to," Hellickson said.
Hellickson struggled in several of his spring starts, but clearly, he was ready once the games that counted began.
"I was working on some things there the first few [spring] starts, and it just wasn't working for me," Hellickson said. "Those last few, I found my groove and threw what I'm used to throwing, and it felt good."
Hellickson cruised through the Yankees' lineup for the first five innings, allowing just two hits, before experiencing a minor bump in the road in the sixth.
Alex Rodriguez doubled with two outs in the inning and stole third when Teixeira walked. But the Yankees could not get to Hellickson, who struck out Swisher swinging to end the inning.
Hellickson then retired the Yankees in order in the seventh and eighth innings. After Hellickson retired Rodriguez and Teixeira to start the ninth, Swisher drew a walk on the right-hander's 118th pitch of the game. That's when Maddon called on Fernando Rodney to finish off the victory and earn his second save of the season.
"He never is considered a power pitcher," Granderson said of Hellickson. "The one thing he does really well is change speeds. He changes his pitches throughout the course of the game -- the one thing that I heard a lot of guys say, and I felt the same way. If you do that you're going to be very successful. He was again today."
For the third consecutive game, the Rays managed to score in the first inning.
Sunday's first-inning work began with an Evan Longoria double to left off Yankees starter Phil Hughes. Matt Joyce followed by hitting a sinking liner to right field. Yankees right fielder Raul Ibanez left his feet to try to make a play, but he could not come up with the ball, which rolled to the wall, allowing Joyce to reach third with a stand-up triple and giving the Rays a 1-0 lead.
Carlos Pena homered off Hughes in the second to collect his second homer of the season and give the Rays a 2-0 lead.
Jeff Keppinger added a solo home run in the sixth off Boone Logan to push the lead to 3-0.
Pena, who is hitting .500 with two home runs and seven RBIs in his first three games since returning to the Rays, seemed far more impressed with Hellickson than his own auspicious beginning.
"There's nothing you can say that would describe that type of performance," Pena said.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.