Maddon: AL East makes Rays 'better, faster'

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Maddon: AL East makes Rays 'better, faster'

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Having managed in the American League East, Joe Maddon knows all about tough competition.

But the Tampa Bay Rays manager believes the entire league -- and not just his own division -- is deeper in 2012 and the margin for error is smaller.

"Thickerer,'' said Maddon Sunday. "Is that a word? It's really intimidating sometimes. I think Toronto's a lot better. We played Toronto a few days ago and their lineup is good. And they've got this one guy (Jose Bautista) who's at another level. Then you look at what Detroit's done (with Prince Fielder), what the the Angels have done (with Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson), what Texas is today. It's gotten increasingly more difficult."

"That's why you're always looking for the edge. Where's this one or two or three more (wins)? Where did you get those from? We won 91 games last year -- how do you find 92, 93, 95 (wins)? Where are those games this year? That's where I think when you work on these things and prepare, if you have a bunch of players who buy into the little things, you have a chance for 92, 93, 94, and 95. If you have a bunch of guys who do not, it's hard to find those four, five six games you need.

"The razor-thin edge between winning and losing has become even finer right now.''

As difficult as the East is, Maddon believes the unbalanced schedule helps the Rays in the long run.
"I just think playing in our division makes us better, faster,'' he said. "I've always believed that. People ask, 'Don't you want to get out of the A.L. East?' Why? This is the best place to learn. I think, for our guys, the learning curve has been accelerated because we play here.

"But in general teams, it's going to be more difficult (to reach the post-season). Offense is on the decline, but the pitching's gotten a lot better all over the place.''

Shaughnessy: Everything Farrell does blows up in his face, particularly in 8th inning

Shaughnessy: Everything Farrell does blows up in his face, particularly in 8th inning

Dan Shaughnessy joins Sports Tonight to discuss Rick Porcello giving up a game-tying homerun in the 8th, and explains why John Farrell has been very unlucky with any decision he makes.

Belichick impressed by rookie Thuney's work at left guard

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Belichick impressed by rookie Thuney's work at left guard

FOXBORO -- Joe Thuney may not have won the starting left guard job officially, but Bill Belichick says he's on the right track. And for a rookie, that's feat in and of itself.

The third-round pick out of North Carolina State -- you may remember it as the Kevin-Faulk-in-the-No.-12-jersey selection -- has been the first-team left guard since the start of training camp, and he hasn't moved since. Thuney has occasionally taken snaps at center, and the Patriots have him learning multiple spots behind the scenes. But every time Nate Solder has run on to the field as the left tackle, Thuney has been there by his side at guard. 

Even going back to OTAs, held not long after he was drafted, Thuney was the top choice at that position. 

"Joe has done a good job with what we’ve given him," Belichick said. "There was a point where we felt comfortable making that, I’d say temporary move, It wasn’t permanent. But he has handled it well. I think he’s certainly moving towards being able to lock something down at some point. I don’t think we’re there yet, but I think he is certainly gaining on it. He has had a good preseason, had a good spring."

What once may have been deemed a temporary move back in the spring -- perhaps due to players like Shaq Mason, Tre' Jackson and Josh Kline dealing with injuries early in the offseason -- now seems like it should be a permanent one.

Thuney's run as the No. 1 left guard has been uninterrupted because his performance hasn't warranted a change. He's held his own against former first-round defensive tackle Malcom Brown in one-on-one practice drills, and he's been the highest-graded player on the Patriots offensive line through two preseason games, per Pro Football Focus. (The only players with higher grades on the team through two games are tight end AJ Derby and defensive end Trey Flowers.)

The man who went viral before the draft for his ability to solve a Rubik's cube in just over a minute has flashed an understanding of how quickly things move on the inside. Plus, playing under unretired offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, Thuney has been quick himself, both picking up pressures and working to the second level in the running game with aplomb.

Thuney will still have a preseason game or two to solidify his grasp on a starting role, but even for the brief period during which Mason and Kline were simultaneously healthy, Thuney was the choice on the left side of the interior offensive line. Now that Mason is dealing with what's been reported as a hand injury, Jackson remains on PUP, and Jonathan Cooper is still out after suffering a foot injury early in camp, the job seems like Thuney's to lose.

That Belichick even hinted Thuney is "gaining on it" is an indication of just how impressive he's been during his short time as a pro.