ST. PETERSBURG — During a season that began with not only his career but his overall health in question, Rocco Baldelli watched several of the Rays' raucous celebrations after another of their no-way oh-my wins.
Saturday, three weeks into his remarkable comeback from a rare muscle fatigue disorder, Baldelli was in the middle of the scene after doubling in the decisive run in a wild 10-9 walkoff win over the Orioles.
And after all the back-slapping, helmet-whacking and shaving cream-in-the-face smashing his teammates could muster, he couldn't have felt any better.
"It's a lot more fun to be involved and to actually contribute and be a part of it. That's something I've been waiting for for a long time, and it was awesome. It was fun to be on the bottom. I got hammered pretty good, but I enjoyed every second of it," Baldelli said.
"I'm probably going to remember this day when I think about this season. Hopefully we have a lot of other things to remember also, but this was a special day for me."
It was the first game-ending hit of Baldelli's injury-marred career, and it couldn't have come at a much better time: before an electric Tropicana Field free-concert crowd of 34,805 and a Fox TV audience as the Rays improved to an American League-best 83-51, maintained their 4½ game East lead over Boston and tied a team record with 20 wins in the month.
The Rays won a game that they trailed 2-0 in the first and 7-3 in the fifth, that featured eight lead changes or ties, that reliever J.P. Howell salvaged after a rough start by Andy Sonnanstine, that they were one out from sealing before Nick Markakis' homer off Dan Wheeler in the ninth, that they led because in Baldelli's previous at-bat he was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded.
"I think we're all glad we got the win, and I think it makes it a little better for him to get the game-winning hit," centerfielder B.J. Upton said. "Everything he's been through, to battle back and not give up and to come back and help us try to get where we want to be, it's great."
Baldelli, 26, hit two home runs and knocked in four runs in 11 games since his Aug. 10 return, but none mattered as much as this. After Carlos Pena, continuing his sizzling summer, walked with one out in the ninth (his sixth in two games), Baldelli pulled a 1-and-0 fastball down the line and into the leftfeld corner, and Pena raced around, just beating the throw.
"Every player imagines being in situations like that and coming through and winning games, but realistically I didn't think in spring training I'd be part of anything like this," Baldelli said. "I wanted to, but I didn't think it was a possibility. Sometimes you get things that you don't expect."
It was obvious how much excitement and joy his teammates had for him as Upton and Akinori Iwamura led a wild charge toward second base.
"It's just the perfect story, and it's not over yet," Pena said. "Just one more chapter, but it was quite an exciting one."
"It's the best baseball story of the year," Howell said, "and it's going to keep going, hopefully, all the way through to October."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.