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Maddon hopes extra work helps Rays regain focus necessary to turn disappointing season around

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Spring training-like drills in June for the team with baseball's worst record?

Don't snicker.

Joe Maddon is adamant that extra work he's ordered for the Tampa Bay Rays can help his underachieving club, off to its worst start in nearly a decade, turn the season around.

Bunt defences and refresher courses on fundamentals that can lead to turning more double plays and improving how outfielders play balls hit off the wall were the focal point of pregame workouts at Tropicana Field over the past few days. More sessions are planned this week, when the Rays finish a 10-game homestand.

"I'm really pleased with what they've done and how they're doing it. It's just a matter of sharpening the mental sword," Maddon said, stressing the extra work that follows a stretch in which the Rays dropped 14 of 15 games is not punitive.

"We've come out, and guys who have been playing in the big leagues for several years have been outstanding. That, to me, is what I'm looking for. How do you approach all that?" Maddon added. "It was good. ... There's not a whole lot of undercurrent, as I can perceive it, in a negative way. So that tells me the guys are actively involved, mentally involved."

The Rays have won seven of 11 on the heels of the 1-14 slide. Still, it's too early to attribute the mini-surge to Spring Training, Part 2.

Five of those wins came against improved, but still cellar-dwelling Houston.

"We won," star third baseman Evan Longoria said after going 3 for 4 and driving in a run in Sunday's 5-2 victory over the Astros. "That's the bottom line, and that's really at this point all I care about."

Maddon remains optimistic about the prospect of salvaging the season, noting the Rays will learn a lot about themselves in the coming weeks.

"We know we're going to come out on the other side, and you want to come out the other side with guys who are going to stick together and not point fingers and who don't abandon the plan. That part of it has been interesting," the manager said.

"It's difficult, but we're not quitting," the manager said. "There's a high level of accountability while this is all going on, and I really appreciate that."

Five things worth watching or talking about over the next week in baseball:

ENCORE: Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw (7-2, 2.53 ERA) seeks his fifth consecutive victory when he makes his first start since pitching his first career no-hitter against the Colorado Rockies, taking the mound Tuesday night at Kansas City against left-hander Danny Duffy. The Royals also have a tough matchup the previous game, when the Dodgers' Zack Greinke (9-3, 2.57) makes his second career start against his former team.

HE CAN HIT: Astros 2B Jose Altuve was an All-Star in 2012 and is off to an even better start this season, leading the majors with 103 hits and 30 multi-hits games. He tops the AL with a .336 batting average and 26 stolen bases, and he's on pace to finish with a franchise-record 217 hits.

POP QUIZ: Orioles manager Buck Showalter was discussing C Matt Wieters' season-ending elbow surgery when he referenced a conversation Baltimore's training staff had recently had with Dr. James Andrews, then asked reporters to guess the average age for players undergoing Tommy John surgery for the first time. When no one responded correctly, Showalter said it's 19. "It's unbelievable, how it's moving up every year. It's an epidemic. He's doing 14-, 15-, 16-year old Tommy Johns," the manager added.

TOUGH LUCK: Seattle ace Felix Hernandez (8-2, 2.22), who starts Monday night at Boston, is 0-1 with two no-decisions in his past three starts. During that span, he's yielded just two runs over 22 2/3 innings.

STAT OF THE WEEK: Tampa Bay's David Price also has little to show for some outstanding pitching lately. The 2012 AL Cy Young winner has at least 10 strikeouts in four consecutive games, yet he's 1-3 during the stretch. He's the first pitcher to have seven double-digit strikeout performances within a team's first 75 games since 2002, when Curt Schilling (nine) and Randy Johnson (seven) did it for Arizona.

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