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Baldelli's minor step may raise Rays' bat options

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As executive vice president Andrew Friedman looks to acquire a right-handed-hitting outfielder, the Rays might yet have another intriguing option.

Rocco Baldelli played rightfield for Double-A Montgomery on Wednesday — his first appearance in the field since May 2007 — and came though it well enough that manager Joe Maddon said Thursday that "it's possible" he could end up being the hitter that upgrades the Rays' lineup.

"You don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves," Maddon said. "It's possible, but I don't know when. He's still going through this process. I don't want to say we're going to hang our hat on that quite yet. But it's possible."

Baldelli played only three innings, as scheduled, but it was still a significant step. He hadn't played the outfield in a game since his 2007 season ended with a hamstring injury, and after being sidelined since spring training because of a rare muscle-fatigue condition, he had been limited to DH and pinch-hit duties during his rehab assignments at Class A Vero Beach and Montgomery.

Maddon said it was important that Baldelli felt good the day after, but also that he felt good about it in a conversation with head trainer Ron Porterfield.

"He spoke really well, he spoke in a very encouraging, positive way," Maddon said. "It was the kind of script we haven't heard, so it's good."

Baldelli, who has a .211 average (12-for-57, three homers, 10 RBIs) through 18 minor-league games, was 1-for-3 as the Biscuits' DH on Thursday, with plans to take today off and play five innings in the field Saturday.

BARTLETT is BACK: Jason Bartlett was glad to be back in the lineup after missing 16 games with a right knee sprain, and the Rays were glad to have him back, having gone 7-9 in his absence, with six shortstop errors.

Bartlett said he felt "great," but admitted he was anxious about playing at game speed. He was uncertain how the knee would react, with his biggest problem the crossover step in turning left on the bases. He is wearing a fabric brace with metal hinges on the sides and acknowledged concern over sliding.

Maddon said Bartlett was confident he could play the seven consecutive games until the team's next day off, which is important because by sending down Ben Zobrist the Rays don't have a true backup. 3B Evan Longoria was considered the fill-in, but Maddon said Thursday that he would also consider INF Willy Aybar, who has been taking ground balls at short, if Bartlett needed a rest.

"He's not afraid to try it," Maddon said. "I have a lot of respect for Willy as a baseball player, so I wouldn't shy away from that either."

TRADEWINDS: Among all the rumors and speculation, most interesting could be reports in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and on ESPN.com that the Pirates have lowered their price for OF Xavier Nady and LHP Damaso Marte, both of whom are of interest to the Rays.

The Post-Gazette said the Pirates now were seeking one elite prospect rather than two; ESPN.com's Buster Olney said executives with other teams think the price will continue to drop as Thursday's nonwaiver deadline approaches, and that the Mets, Yankees and A's are among others interested.

TUNING IN: FSN reports that its telecasts of Rays games had the highest average rating of all prime-time cable shows in the Tampa Bay market during the first half of the season, and fifth overall. FSN also says ratings are up 48 percent from the same point last season.

MISCELLANY: Maddon stuck with his new-look lineup against Royals RHP Gil Meche, keeping B.J. Upton in the No. 2 spot and Longoria cleanup. … Ex-Ray Joey Gathright was put on the Royals' DL before Thursday's game with a right shoulder problem.

Baldelli's minor step may raise Rays' bat options 07/24/08 [Last modified: Friday, July 25, 2008 9:50pm]
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