Tampa Bay Rays explore Rocco Baldelli's abilities in rightfield

NEW YORK — The Rays took a look Thursday at what could be an expanded role for Rocco Baldelli.

Baldelli made his first start in rightfield since rejoining the team Sept. 1, and his ability to handle the assignment could affect the Rays' postseason plans and roster configuration.

"If Rocco can play defense like that, it permits us to do other things," manager Joe Maddon said.

The initial reviews were good. Baldelli made a running, leaping catch at the right-centerfield wall in the first inning, one of three fly balls, and three base hits, he handled. He also went 2-for-3, including an infield single in the sixth that knocked in the tying run, before being replaced by pinch-runner Desmond Jennings.

"I wasn't really hoping to have all those balls hit at me, but they were, and it came out okay, and I feel good,'' Baldelli said. "So I'm pretty pleased.''

Baldelli, who started his comeback in July after spending the first part of the season as a minor-league coach, is limited physically by an illness that causes muscle fatigue.

With Baldelli in rightfield against left-handed starters, the Rays have the option of also using Willy Aybar at DH and Ben Zobrist at first base, as they did Thursday. Both potential first-round playoff foes, Minnesota and Texas, have two lefty starters.

SHORT ON TIME: Pitching coach Jim Hickey and Maddon insist that RHP Jeff Niemann, despite being 0-4 with a 14.43 ERA in five starts, is getting closer to his pre-disabled-list form, specifically in regaining command of his fastball.

But if Niemann is to be part of the postseason plans, he's going to have to show them progress soon. He has two scheduled starts remaining: tonight vs. Seattle and Wednesday vs. Baltimore.

Maddon will be looking for a few things:

"Of course, results do matter, but I'm looking at mound presence, mound demeanor, where the fastball is going, how he's reacting to bad situations. Whereas, I've talked about Wade Davis (who was also on the DL) getting better at those things, Jeffrey's made small strides, but he hasn't really jumped in that direction.

"He needs to jump more in that direction so he feels good about himself and we feel good about what he's doing."

PITCHING IN: Because Davis threw only 33 pitches in a rain-abbreviated start vs. the Yankees on Wednesday, Maddon said they would consider either using him in relief this weekend or moving up his next start from Monday.

The key to rookie RHP Jeremy Hellickson's 3 1/3-inning relief appearance Wednesday may have been the ability to treat it like a start. He had plenty of time to prepare to replace Davis during a 2-hour, 11-minute delay.

"Kind of like when he was starting for us, his fastball was going where he wanted it to, and he threw some really good changeups,'' Maddon said.

SEATTLE SCENE: Maddon has some concern about the weekend because the Rays haven't played the Mariners since mid May. "I really hate the unknown when it comes to this stuff," he said.

He is plenty familiar with Ichiro Suzuki, who reached 200 hits for the 10th straight season.

"He almost wills base hits," Maddon said. "I really think he walks up there, looks where the defense is playing and chooses to hit it somewhere else. I think he's that good, I really do."

MISCELLANY: The Rays were on the painful end of Yankees P Javier Vazquez tying a major-league record (eighth time) by hitting three consecutive batters (Jennings, Aybar, C Kelly Shoppach). … INF Sean Rodriguez, a free swinger, drew his 20th walk. "A milestone,'' Maddon said. … The Rays are an AL-best 35-17 against lefty starters.

Tampa Bay Rays explore Rocco Baldelli's abilities in rightfield 09/23/10 [Last modified: Friday, September 24, 2010 1:34am]

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