Just being back in the Rays lineup was going to make Wednesday a good day for outfielder Sam Fuld. Getting a bunt sign then racing at full speed to first, albeit unsuccessfully, was a positive. • But it was when he broke from leftfield toward the line and made a running then sliding catch to end the fifth inning, scraping his right arm and scuffing his pants, that he showed he was indeed ready, and able, to start the season next week. • "I got dirty," Fuld said. "That's always a good day." • Fuld had been missing for 3½ weeks, resting and rehabbing a tight right hamstring, and his potential absence was a growing concern for the Rays.
They see Fuld, a whirling dervish all-out type of player on offense and defense, as more than just a reserve outfielder but a potential couple-times-a-week starter who can impact a game in the field, on the bases and at the plate.
He will be used to spell Desmond Jennings in centerfield against a tough right-hander, to start in leftfield against some left-handers, as a pinch-hitter to work an at-bat when they need runners or at least to put a ball in play, as a pinch-runner and as a talented, game-changing and highlight-making defender at all three spots.
"He can really be very key," manager Joe Maddon said. "It's so comforting to have a guy that good to be in that role. We're very fortunate. …
"To keep him sharp and ready and utilize him appropriately, he can have a big impact on the success of our team this season."
Playing time tends to be a subject of conversation about Fuld. He came from the Cubs in the January 2011 Matt Garza trade with two subtexts: One was that if he plays too much, he tends to get overexposed and is better in short bursts. The other is that he gets hurt too often and can't stay on the field enough.
The Rays have seen both sides.
Fuld, 31, hurt his right wrist toward the end of the 2011 season, waited to test it in spring training and ended up having surgery that kept him out until late July, then was sidelined in September with a strain of the same right hamstring that bothered him this spring.
He had a torrid stretch in April 2011 — including the "coolest day of my entire life" 4-for-6 showcase at Fenway Park — hitting .364 with a .419 on-base percentage in 19 games, then went .202/.278 the rest of the way. Last year, he hit .311 with a .363 OBP in his first 30 games back, then .083/.185 in his last 14.
Maddon said the key is finding the right balance, and keeping Fuld, who also has diabetes, healthy. Fuld said it has been "brutal" being out so long, but he was buoyed by knowing the team was willing to be patient. The concern now is preventing a recurrence, especially since he has been sidelined twice with the same issue and is spending 3-plus hours a day in the trainer's room on treatment and maintenance.
All of which made it feel even better — "great," actually — to get back on the field Wednesday.
Maddon felt pretty good, too.
"It was nice to see him moving around like that," he said. "On the ball down the line you see how he closed on it — no trepidation regarding my leg, whatever — he just moved on it. And the sliding catch was typical of him. He got right back up, he had a nice bounce, so I have to believe he's feeling pretty good."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.