Baldelli looks strong in return to Rays

From left, Cliff Floyd, Willy Aybar and Eric Hinske come across the plate after Aybar’s three-run homer in the second off R.A. Dickey. It was the first of two homers by Aybar.

Associated Press

From left, Cliff Floyd, Willy Aybar and Eric Hinske come across the plate after Aybar’s three-run homer in the second off R.A. Dickey. It was the first of two homers by Aybar.

SEATTLE — There was much to be made of the names that weren't in the Rays' lineup for Sunday's 11-3 victory over the Mariners that was their franchise record-setting 71st of the season.

But there was one name on the lineup card — Rocco Baldelli — that made the entire day extraordinarily special.

Baldelli drove in only one of the Rays' runs while going 1-for-4, and made only one (sprawling) catch during his five innings in rightfield. But the achievement was just that he played his first major-league game since May 2007, his career, and his overall health, in question due to a rare muscle fatigue condition.

"There were times when I didn't know if I was going to be playing anymore; I honestly didn't know," Baldelli said. "And there were some scary times, too. All of that is behind me now hopefully, and things look good.

"I came out of it feeling good, and I'm just really, really happy right now."

Baldelli, 26, had rejoined the team last week after a successful 20-day rehab assignment but wasn't activated because an injury to shortstop Jason Bartlett kept the Rays from having room on the roster for him.

He was expecting to be activated Tuesday but got a call late Saturday from executive vice president Andrew Friedman telling him that with Carl Crawford injured, he'd be playing Sunday.

He took care of some important business, calling teammate Andy Sonnanstine so they could shave the beards that had become their signs of hope for his return, text messaged family and friends, slept what little he could, showed up at the ballpark early to watch video of Seattle pitchers, found out he wasn't just playing but hitting cleanup and felt something he never had before.

"For the first time in my life, I don't really get nervous about anything, but before the game for some reason I couldn't eat that much," Baldelli said. "I don't know if I was just excited or what. But it was fun, and it was a happy day for me and a lot of people, my family and friends and everyone."

His parents watched from his St. Pete Beach condo, his friends in the Tampa Bay area and Rhode Island gathered to watch.

Starter Edwin Jackson, who worked seven solid innings, and usual backups Willy Aybar, with two homers, and Shawn Riggans, with a three-run shot, did most of the work, but Baldelli did his part as the Rays improved to 71-46, breaking the franchise record for wins and extending their American League East lead over Boston to 4½ games.

With teammates clapping in the dugout for his first at-bat since May 15, 2007, Baldelli grounded back to the mound. But with B.J. Upton on third in the third, Baldelli lined a 3-and-2 pitch over shortstop to extend the lead to 4-0. He struck out and grounded out (running at a decent pace) before leaving, as planned, after 5½ innings, but he did make a key catch in the top of the fifth, charging in then diving forward for a sinking liner.

Manager Joe Maddon, impressed with the catch and the way Baldelli, who hadn't batted in a game since Aug. 1, wasn't jumpy at the plate, said Baldelli's return was bigger than baseball and should be a life lesson for him. "There has to be a sense of relief and satisfaction for him," he said.

Baldelli's teammates were glad to see him on the field.

"It was great,'' Shawn Riggans said. "Oh my God, it was great.''

The Rays will take things slowly with Baldelli, discussing with him how much he can play.

Baldelli, his smile beaming during postgame interviews, was just thrilled to get another chance he didn't know he'd get.

"To be able to get back to the big leagues, it's special," he said. "I honestly don't even know what to say. I'm just really happy. I'm just enjoying all this right now."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

Rays 11

Mariners 3

Match point

Among modern-day teams (in more than their second season), the Rays are among the quickest to break their franchise wins record based on games played:

Team Record Tied Broken

1903 NY Giants 60 Game 98 99

1912 Washington 64 Game 111 112

1903 Cubs 68 Game 115 117

2008 Rays 70 Game 116 117

1904 NY Yankees 72 Game 116 117

1904 NY Giants 84 Game 116 117

Baldelli looks strong in return to Rays 08/10/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 11, 2008 7:56pm]

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