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Rays' Baldelli may be close to playing in extended spring training games

ST. PETERSBURG — There is still no official timetable for OF Rocco Baldelli's return, but there's enough progress that he and the Rays are at least talking about it.

Baldelli met with Rays officials Tuesday to discuss what his role could be if he came back, and they are likely to soon establish a schedule that would have him start by getting at-bats as a DH in extended spring training games.

"It could be fairly soon," Baldelli said, "but I don't know how soon."

Baldelli, 26, hasn't played since May 15, 2007, and has been sidelined since spring training with a rare condition that causes muscle fatigue in his legs.

Baldelli, who is eligible to come off the 60-day disabled list starting Thursday, plans to report to the minor-league complex next week when the Rays head out of town to try to "ramp up" his workouts, which have been limited to hitting and throwing. A big test will be when he starts running.

"He's feeling better," manager Joe Maddon said. "He wants to get a bit more active.''

If Baldelli were to rejoin the Rays he likely would be limited primarily to DH and pinch-hit duties, but even in that role could make a hefty contribution.

"It would be wonderful for us and for him if he was able to get back out there again because you can just imagine — I'm not saying playing every day, but playing out here on occasion for us — the kind of difference it can make," Maddon said. "We're cautiously optimistic about the whole thing."

Baldelli said the team's success has made even his mundane rehab exercises more exciting, and he is eager to be a part in any role, no matter how limited.

"I'll do what I have to do to play the game, which is different from how I used to play," he said. "I just want to come back and help this team any way I can."

Baldelli is hopeful of making it back to the majors sometime this season: "I can see it. … I plan on coming back; I don't know when it's going to be."

FROM Z TO A?: INF Willy Aybar is in line to be activated off the disabled list in the next couple of days, and it seems likely he will replace Ben Zobrist in the utility infielder role. Another option would be to reduce the bullpen crew from seven to six.

Aybar, out since mid April with a left hamstring strain, played his fourth rehab game Tuesday at Triple-A Durham, and is 6-for-16 and running well.

"He's going to be back, we just have to figure out primarily when it's going to happen," Maddon said. "He can definitely add to what we've been doing, no question."

Sending down Zobrist would leave the Rays without a true backup shortstop, but they conceivably could use 3B Evan Longoria, who played short in high school and junior college and for about 20 games at Long Beach State.

FOR THE DEFENSE: Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin addressed the team pregame at Maddon's invitation and shared one of his mottos: Play hard, play fast, play together. "I really like that," Maddon said. "If we can play hard, play fast and play together, that would be a nice way to go through the season."

MISCELLANY: The Rays struck out 14 times, five looking. … Zobrist is scheduled to start today in rightfield with Jonny Gomes as the DH. Shawn Riggans will catch. … The Rays aren't faring well in early All-Star fan voting, with Carlos Pena fifth among AL first baseman with 117,065 votes (Boston's Kevin Youkilis has 419,813) and Carl Crawford 13th (with 149,732) and B.J. Upton 15th (102,653) among outfielders (Boston's Manny Ramirez has 539,122). … The Rays observed a moment of silence for former pitcher Geremi Gonzalez, who was struck by lightning and killed Sunday in Venezuela. … The Rays announced the retirement of long-time official scorer Jim Ferguson, who has been in baseball for 50 years.

Rays' Baldelli may be close to playing in extended spring training games 05/27/08 [Last modified: Thursday, May 29, 2008 5:54pm]
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