Oh, and that franchise-record 71st victory was pretty significant too.
Willy Aybar homered twice, including a three-run shot, Shawn Riggans added a three-run homer of his own, and Baldelli returned after missing more than a year in the Rays’ 11-3 rout of the Seattle Mariners on Sunday.
Tampa Bay bettered its previous best record of 70-92 in 2004. The Rays improved to 71-46 by taking three of four in Seattle and own a 4 1/2 -game lead over Boston in the AL East, their largest advantage since July 6.
“It’s going to take more than that,” manager Joe Maddon said bluntly afterward.
But multi-homer games and franchise win records didn’t matter much in the Rays’ clubhouse afterward. The attention belonged to a grinning Baldelli, and even being on the field after nearly seeing his playing career end.
“I’ve said it before, there were times I didn’t know if I was going to be playing anymore. I honestly didn’t know,” Baldelli said after going 1-for-4. “There were some scary times too. Those are all behind me now, hopefully. I came out of it feeling good and I’m just really, really happy now.”
The oft-injured Baldelli missed most of last season with a lingering hamstring problem, just another in a string of injuries that kept him sidelined for much of the 2005 and 2006 seasons. The Rays asked Baldelli to pace himself during spring training, but he was soon diagnosed with a mitochondrial disorder, a condition that slows muscle recovery and causes extreme fatigue.
Baldelli slowly worked himself into shape and with outfielder Carl Crawford going on the 15-day disabled list Sunday after injuring a tendon in the middle finger of his right hand, the Rays were in need of an outfielder. Just so happened that Baldelli was with the team for this trip, and played in his first game since May 15, 2007.
He claims not to get nervous often, but didn’t have much of an appetite before Sunday’s game.
“To be able to get back to the big leagues, it’s special,” Baldelli said. “I honestly don’t even know what to say.”
Baldelli had an RBI single in the third inning and made a diving grab—or as he said “fall”—of Brian LaHair’s shallow fly ball in the fifth. He was lifted in the sixth inning after getting four at-bats, almost exactly the kind of acclimation Maddon hoped to get for Baldelli.
“It’s not about him playing right field and getting a hit today. It’s just the matter of him getting back out, getting back in the fray and I think that’s going to, in the long haul, benefit him in a lot of different ways,” Maddon said.
The Rays have done a pretty good job this season of keeping the rest of the league speechless about their remarkable turnaround. Even on the day the Rays learned they’ll be without Crawford for at least two weeks, and possibly longer, it was again everyone in Tampa Bay’s lineup chipping in.
Aybar started at third base in place of Evan Longoria, who missed his third straight game with a sore right wrist after he was hit by a pitch on Thursday night. Aybar gave Tampa Bay a 3-0 lead in the second with his fifth homer, barely clearing the top of the left-field wall. Aybar later hit a solo homer in the seventh in almost the identical spot. He has six homers this season, and 11 in his career.
Riggans came through with two outs in the fifth, hitting a pitch by R.A. Dickey (3-7) over the hand-operated scoreboard in left for his fifth homer of the season. Riggans has played in just 18 of the Rays’ last 86 games, typically just to give starting catcher Dioner Navarro a day off. It was Riggans first homer since June 29.
“You can’t really look at what we don’t have. You have to look at what we do have and the guys that we do have can produce,” Riggans said.
Edwin Jackson was the recipient of those unlikely homers from the Nos. 8 and 9 hitters in the Rays’ batting order, and won his fourth straight start. Jackson (9-7) pitched seven strong innings, scattering seven hits and striking out two. His only mistake was Jose Lopez’s solo homer leading off the second. Lopez was later pulled from the game by manager Jim Riggleman, who declined to give an explanation afterward other than to say it was not an injury.
“I don’t know why, but I’ll say nothing right now,” Lopez said.
Cliff Floyd had three hits, including an RBI single to score Carlos Pena in the sixth. Pena had tripled, with his ball bouncing twice off the top of the wall, but staying in play. B.J. Upton also had an RBI single for the Rays.
Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki extended his hitting streak to 16 games, and had an RBI single in the ninth.
Seattle placed IF/OF Willie Bloomquist on the 15-day DL after he suffered a strained hamstring in the 10th inning of Saturday night’s loss. IF Tug Hulett was called up from Triple-A Tacoma to take Bloomquist’s spot. … Upton and Suzuki both stole their 36th base in Sunday’s game, two behind AL-leading Jacoby Ellsbury of Boston.