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With brutal early schedule, Tampa Bay Rays seek strong finish to spring

FORT MYERS — The injuries and cautious handling that have kept the Rays from getting the band together thus far this spring may not impact any of the players' availability to start the regular season.

But it could impact their overall readiness as a team.

With three new position players (Jeff Keppinger, Carlos Peña, Luke Scott) and a couple of relievers to integrate (or re-integrate) into their way of running games, with a batting order still to be sorted out, with some new defensive plays to practice, manager Joe Maddon has several reasons to want the group to play together at least over the final two weeks.

But more importantly, he wants to make sure they have the chance to play well.

The emphasis on getting off to a good start is heightened this year, not only by the enhanced expectations but by a torturous opening-month schedule that includes 16 of their first 22 games against the five other AL powerhouses.

They open by playing the Yankees at home, then the Tigers and Red Sox on the road, and after series with the Jays and Twins, they square off with the Angels and Rangers.

"I don't have concerns physically, but it is about getting off to a good start," Maddon said. "So I think we need enough time to get everybody mentally and physically moving in the right direction.

"I don't want to be faced with the moment where you have to just try to turn on the switch right at the very end. That normally does not ever work. So I don't want us to be that group. But I still think there's time to do this the right way."

HAIR TODAY: Maddon's hair has — good or bad — been a major part of his presence over the years, so he admits to feeling a bit uneasy about shaving his head — or least getting close with a No. 1 or 2 trim — on Thursday to benefit pediatric cancer.

But he couldn't feel better about the cause.

"When you talk about pediatric cancer, how do you even describe that? It's just a very difficult moment for the victim and the family," he said. "So always trying to reach out in an empathic way and have a better understanding of it and hopefully more people realize the importance of this."

Text CUT to 50555 to donate $10, or visit pcfcutforacure.org.

RAYS RUMBLINGS: Baseball America picks the Rays to win a wild-card spot then advance to the World Series, with 3B Evan Longoria as AL MVP and LHP Matt Moore as MLB's top rookie. … OF Matt Joyce ended up with the top salary of the Rays pre-arbitration players at $499,400. Sean Rodriguez got $492,800 and Reid Brignac $490,600. … INF Elliot Johnson's impression of ESPN's Tim Kurkjian earned him the No. 7 spot on the weekly Not Top 10. … LHP David Price tweeted that his warmup song will be Pretty Light's Finally Moving. … About 200 $10 general admission tickets remain for the March 18 game at St. Petersburg's Al Lang Stadium between the Netherlands and a squad of Rays non-roster players; see stpete­internationalbaseball.com.

With brutal early schedule, Tampa Bay Rays seek strong finish to spring 03/10/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 10, 2012 8:17pm]
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