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Notes: Rays seek strong finish

Notes: Rays seek strong finish

ST. PETERSBURG -- Winning is, like, cool.

Since July 29, the Rays have been a different team, posting an 18-16 record -- after going 5-25 from June 25 to July 28. They have won five of six and eight of their last 10, including an 11-7 mark since Aug. 15.

Suddenly, the team appears as though it will avoid 100 losses. Entering Monday night's game against the Orioles, they trailed the fourth-place O's by four games.

When asked about the significance of the team avoiding 100 losses and possibly finishing out of last place, Rays manager Joe Maddon talked about his desire for the team to just stick to what it's been doing lately: playing hard, making fewer mistakes, having better at-bats, and pitching significantly better.

When pressed further, Maddon conceded that avoiding -- and reaching -- the above-mentioned plateaus would indeed be an achievement for the team.

"It is definitely a sign of progress, definitely a sign of measured progress," Maddon said. "I just think finishing strongly -- we've battled all season, we've had our setbacks and problems - and now we're playing the kind of baseball we envisioned. Finish strong. You go into the offseason with a really good last month like this and you leave with a good taste in your mouth. And you know going into Spring Training, you have this nice little month to build off of. And you know what you're capable of doing against good teams in a pennant chase."

Aki's bat: Akinori Iwamura's bat has not yet been returned by Major League Baseball. The Rays third baseman's bat was confiscated during Saturday's contest in the Bronx when Yankees manager Joe Torre suggested there was an irregularity with the bat's flat top.

Iwamura had the last laugh when he connected for a two-run homer Sunday with his new bat.

Prior to Monday's game, he joked with reporters about the outlandish prospect of him sawing off the top of his bat to make it flat.

"I don't own a saw," he said with a smile. "You can check my house."

The bat's return is expected any day.

Baldelli still out: The chances of Rocco Baldelli returning this season are looking less and less likely the more time he misses.

Baldelli has been on the disabled list since May 17 with a left hamstring strain. During his recent rehab assignment, he had to stop due to overall soreness.

Maddon said team doctors have conducted tests on the oft-injured center fielder and are still waiting for results.

When asked if there is a drop-dead date for Baldelli to play this season, Maddon replied: "It's getting soon. I mean, I still believe there's a chance to get him back at DH at some point, something that we can do. But for right now, we just don't know."

Maddon said he did not feel Baldelli's status is career-threatening, and he also said the Rays have not yet broached the subject with Baldelli about the possibility of playing winter ball.

Sonnanstine setting the tone: After a successful road trip that saw the Rays' pitching perform well, Maddon was asked if the fact that Rays pitchers seem to be pitching inside more often was a factor in the staff's overall performance.

"It's always better when you use the entire plate and not just one side," Maddon said.

Maddon believes Andy Sonnanstine's Friday night performance set the tone for the weekend series against the Yankees.

"Now Sonnie's pitching 86, 87 [mph] -- although he did hit 90 a couple of times -- and we've got all these other guys with more physical fastballs. And they all see him go out there and just attack. I thought he set the tone for the whole weekend."

Sonnastine kept the Yankees off balance for eight innings on Friday night at Yankee Stadium in his best performance as a Major Leaguer. The right-hander held the Yankees to one run on two hits in eight innings to earn his fourth win of the season.

Up next: The Rays will play the Orioles in the second game of their three-game series on Tuesday night in a 7:10 ET contest at Tropicana Field. Scott Kazmir will start for the Rays and will be opposed by right-hander Jeremy Guthrie.

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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