ST. PETERSBURG — For almost his entire adult life, 18 of his first 19 years in pro ball, Rocco Baldelli was a Ray.
Prospect, as a 2000 first-round pick. Popular player, medical issues ending his career prematurely in 2010. Executive. Coach, the past four years.
Aside from the 2009 season he spent with his hometown Red Sox, the Trop was always home base.
On Thursday, he will walk in as a visitor, and somewhat the enemy, in his first year managing the Twins, and quite well, with a majors-best 37-17 record.
“(He’s a) pretty big deal,’’ Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “He’d been here for close to 20 years. Rocco was here through some of the down years, but he also participated in a big role when this organization really got going. So he’s got great perspective. But Rocco’s a pretty special personality, just his demeanor.’’
Veteran centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier couldn’t say enough good things about Baldelli, especially his ability to relate well to players.
“One of the best baseball minds I’ve ever been around,’’ Kiermaier said. “He’s one of those guys where you sit here and listen to him talk about certain things during game situations. And I’ll be like, ‘You know what, that never would have even registered in my mind.’ … He’s just such a unique intelligent baseball mind. He’s just an intelligent person first and foremost.
“He’s the man. Love that guy. So happy for the success they’ve had over there thus far, and for him to be running that ship right now it’s awesome to see because he’s such a humble, grateful guy. He knows he’s in a great situation. He’s going to be that even-keeled, consistently just normal, great guy Rocco each and every day. That’s just who he is.’’
Baldelli is excited to be back.
"Being back in St. Petersburg means a lot to me,'' he said Wednesday. "It’ll be emotional. But it’s also something I’m really looking forward to. Lots of lifelong friends here in the Rays organization. And I can’t wait to see everyone.''
The Rays are planning to show a tribute video. Better for Baldelli, Cash said no pranks are planned.
The Twins have other former Rays, including players C.J. Cron and Jake Odorizzi and coaches Bill Evers and Derek Shelton
Zunino close to return; ‘good news’ for Duffy
Catcher Mike Zunino felt so good and over his quad strain in playing a rehab game Tuesday in Port Charlotte that he wants to skip the final two planned tests and rejoin the Rays on Thursday. Cash said that “most likely” won’t happen, but he did leave open the potential of a return this weekend, maybe as soon as Friday, saying the plan is for Zunino to catch on Thursday for the Stone Crabs.
Infielder Matt Duffy got what Cash called “fairly good news” in visiting Dallas-based hamstring specialist Dr. Daniel Cooper. “Nothing too alarming, nothing out of the ordinary, which was good,’’ Cash said. “Hopefully gives him some peace of mind.’’ Cash said that Duffy won’t need to be shut down as a result of feeling discomfort during a May 22 rehab game and can continue working out to strengthen it. No date has been set for him to resume rehab games.
Catcher Michael Perez (oblique) and infielder Yandy Diaz (left hand bruise) both still feel discomfort when swinging a bat, though Diaz might try to take batting practice Thursday. … Pitcher Tyler Glasnow, sidelined through the All-Star break with a forearm flexor muscle strain, played catch for the second time at a distance of 60 feet and said he “felt really, really great.’’ … Infielder Joey Wendle (broken right wrist) advanced to hitting flipped balls and hopes to return in a few weeks. … Prospect Brent Honeywell, shut down with Tommy John surgery rehab since mid-April due recently to a nerve issue, is also playing catch and will be re-evaluated Monday.
Charlie Morton’s war
The Twins roll into the Trop leading the majors with 106 homers. Rays starter Charlie Morton said that could be right where he wants them: “It could actually play into an advantage for me. … If guys are trying to lift and separate, those are really the guys I like to face. Maybe not when I’m just grooving pitches. But if I’m executing with my curveball, and I have a four-seam (fastball) that’s working in the top of the zone, and I have a two-seamer that’s working in the bottom of the zone, sometimes guys that hit a lot of home runs I can do decently against. So I don’t really worry about it. If anything, I think it could be an advantage.’’
• The Rays posted their first walkoff win of the season. This was the second latest into a year they went without a walkoff, and longest since 1999, when they did so in July. They also logged their fourth sweep but first at home, failing four times to complete one. They had sweeps at Chicago, Boston and Miami.
• Marisa and Kevin Kiermaier hosted the first three of five members of the Kiermaier’s Kids program that they are sponsoring with the Children’s Dream Fund after making a $25,000 donation. The fund provides trips and special activities for children with life-threatening illnesses.
• Lefty prospect Brendan McKay clocked 91-94 mph and was in command and control Tuesday in his Triple-A debut, allowing three hits over five scoreless innings. He is scheduled to pitch Monday.