ST. PETERSBURG — For all Rocco Baldelli did for the Rays in his 18 years in the organization as a player, exec and coach, he got welcomed back Thursday with a pair of wrong-sized used cargo shorts and a pair of walking sandals.
“This was my returning-back-to-St. Petersburg gift,’’ he said.
It was all a joke, of course, orchestrated by Rays video coordinator Chris “Chico” Fernandez, to extend the long-running teasing about Baldelli’s, shall we say, casual taste in fashion.
Officially, the Rays warmly welcomed back Baldelli, in his first year managing the majors-leading Twins, with an endless stream of hugs and handshakes, kind words (though manager Kevin Cash endorsed the gift, noting Baldelli was known “for wearing UPS shorts all over the ballpark), and a touching video tribute.
“It’s nice to be back, first of all,’’ Baldelli said in the visiting manager’s office. “It’s something that I’ve waited for and that I’ve thought about a little bit. There’s just a lot of people in this building and people I spent a lot of time with over the years, for years and years, that I’m looking forward to seeing.
“I used to get a chance to see everyone every day, be around a lot of people whom I love … and I don’t get to see them every day anymore. I’m going to take advantage of the next four games and get a chance to see everyone and really enjoy it. And try to go out there and get some wins.’’
Baldelli said it was “different” and “a little unusual” walking past the Rays clubhouse to get to the visiting side, though he had some experience in 2009, when he played for the Red Sox, the one season in his first 19 in the game that he wasn’t with the Rays.
As eloquent a speaker as Baldelli is, he couldn’t put into words what the Rays organization has meant to him.
“There’s no way I can give a comment on that that’s going to actually portray it or describe it well,’’ he said. “Just can’t do it. Can’t put that kind of emotion into just a few words.
“I consider a lot of people here family and friends and people that I’ll know for the rest of my life. That speaks for itself.’’
Happy birthday to you
Third baseman Christian Arroyo got what he said was “probably the best birthday gift you could get,’’ a callup to the majors, plus a spot in the starting lineup. Plus, as a by-product, he got to have birthday lunch with his mom and sister at the Doc B’s restaurant near the airport after flying in. And to make it better, a couple of doubles and two RBIs in the game.
Arroyo, now 24, has been playing regularly and well at Triple-A Durham since a couple of early season stints with the Rays, including a 5-for-5, 7-RBI game Tuesday, and hitting .314 with a .984 OPS in 33 games.
He said the improved showing was a product of playing daily by being healthy and implementing some adjustments he made, which sounded like taking things more seriously.
“Obviously the more reps and the more opportunity you have to work on stuff, it helps,’’ said Arroyo, a Hernando High product. “But I think a lot of it has to do with the adjustments I made, too. There were things I realized that maybe you can get away with in Triple A that you can’t get away with when you’re in the big leagues.
“So I really tried to focus on exactly what I needed to do there that would make me successful here. Just kind of sharpened up my routine a little bit, really just trying to get as prepared as I can for every game. And while I’m in the games going into every at-bat with an approach on what I want to do and sticking to it.’’
Infielder/outfielder Andrew Velazquez was sent down to make room.
Zunino getting closer; Diaz improving
Catcher Mike Zunino (quad strain) played his second rehab game for high Class A Charlotte on Thursday, striking out three times while playing seven innings, with the possibility, depending how he feels afterward, to be activated Friday. Zunino, out since May 8, has been pushing for a return, but the Rays could opt to be cautious and wait another couple of days. … Infielder Yandy Diaz took live batting practice with some improvement to the bruised left hand that has sidelined him since May 19, and he could start a short rehab assignment in the next few days. “I know he’s still sore,’ Cash said. “The inside pitch, he’s getting to it, but it’s not very comfortable for him right now.’’
• The Rays six-game winning streak is the longest current such streak in the majors, and one better than their previous season high. They are 8-1 in their last nine games.
• Brandon Lowe made his fourth start at first base, his first since April 24. With Joey Wendle working his way back from the injured list to play second, Lowe is likely to get more time at first and in the outfield.
• Cash was still praising reliever Hunter Wood, who on Wednesday worked out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the eighth and pitched three strong innings overall in what ended up a 4-3 11-inning win. Willy Adames delivered the walkoff hit and a memorable bat toss to celebrate.
• Other Twins with Rays ties enjoying the trip back include pitcher Jake Odorizzi (who gets to stay in his offseason Tampa home), first baseman C.J. Cron, and coaches Bill Evers and Derek Shelton.
• Outfielder Tommy Pham on Friday will host players from the Burg Baseball program, who will get to watch batting practice from the field.