CHICAGO — Throughout his long-awaited comeback, Rocco Baldelli yearned to feel part of the Rays' coming-of-age season.
The outfielder who missed 15 months with a rare muscle-fatigue disorder was in the dugout at times during key moments and was part of the home-plate pileup after walkoff wins. Teammates even grew beards like his as a show of support.
"But when you don't play, you don't feel like you're completely part of the group," Baldelli said.
On Friday night, Baldelli was a significant part of the Rays' 9-4 victory over the White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field. Baldelli, playing for the first time in six days, racked up two hits, including a solo homer in the eighth to spark what turned out to be a much-needed three-run rally.
Baldelli wasn't the only star. But after he connected on his first homer since May 3, 2007 and continues to feel more comfortable at the plate, the Rays see signs of how significant he can become down the stretch.
"This guy's really good; he's not just okay, he's an All-Star-caliber player," manager Joe Maddon said. "As we get him back wholly, there's no telling what he can do by the end of this year."
With the victory, the Rays (78-49), stay 41/2 games ahead of the Red Sox in the AL East. It was the type of game the Rays will likely need to win if they want to reach October. They prevailed with starter Edwin Jackson (10-8) gutting through six innings, their offense scuffling with runners in scoring position, two baserunners getting called out at the plate and one of their most reliable relievers (J.P. Howell) giving up two runs.
They also had to conquer a demon in lefty John Danks, who had dominated the Rays in his previous two starts this season, giving up one run in 13 innings while striking out 16.
The Rays chipped away, with an Akinori Iwamura RBI triple in the fifth, Carlos Pena's 26th homer in the sixth, and Jason Bartlett's go-ahead RBI double in the seventh. Baldelli and Ben Zobrist added insurance homers in the eighth off Octavio Dotel.
The Sox, who fell a half game behind the Twins in the AL Central, had a chance to break the game open early, loading the bases in the first. But Jackson managed to find ways to escape, aided by an inning-ending double play in the third and two runners getting caught stealing. Avoiding the big inning — and keeping his composure — is the main reason Jackson, who had a season-high-tying five walks, has made a huge turnaround from a year ago: "Last year, I'd let (those rough innings) get to me."
Jackson left after six, having scattered seven hits but becoming the fourth Ray with 10-plus wins this year. To get there, the bullpen had to hold on.
Grant Balfour inherited runners on first and second with one out in the seventh, and did what he did best — get a strikeout. Balfour fanned the majors' home-run leader, Carlos Quentin (looking), and cleanup hitter Jermaine Dye (swinging) to end the threat.
"We can't do two things: walk people and commit errors," Maddon said. "We got away with, but you can't expect to do that all the time."