As each day passes with another positive report on Rocco Baldelli's rehab assignment, optimism has grown within the organization about the possibility that he will be back in a Rays uniform sometime in the near future.
No one is guaranteeing it will happen or predicting when he might return to the majors after spending the entire season on the disabled list with a mitochondrial disorder, but people have begun to discuss it in realistic terms.
In addressing the possibility at length before Tuesday's game, Manager Joe Maddon catalogued all the good Baldelli has done in his latest rehab stint with Double-A Montgomery. Best of all, he noted, Baldelli has not suffered the kind of setback that has plagued him in the past - and even as he said the word setback, Maddon knocked on the concrete wall of the dugout and a metal support beam, as there was no wood to be found in the immediate vicinity.
"It's the old setback," Maddon said. "If we can avoid the setbacks, I think we can continue to be optimistic that he's going to return - I would have to say relatively soon."
The Rays have begun to work Baldelli into situations he would encounter when he returns to the majors. They have made it clear he would not be expected to be a full-time player, likely spending most of his time platooning in right field and at DH against left-handed starters or pinch-hitting against lefty relievers.
Monday night, Baldelli pinch-hit in the sixth inning and remained in the game in right field. He started at DH Tuesday, going 1-for-4 with a double, and is scheduled to do so again today before taking Thursday off and playing right field Friday.
"We've been trying to create the kind of scenarios that would be presented to him when he came to us," Maddon said, "and that scenario has not been that he would have to play nine innings every day for an entire week."
Baldelli's second 20-day rehab assignment is nearing an end, so there is a possibility he could be back very quickly, but the Rays are downplaying that possibility because of all the questions that must be answered first. Maddon did say he doesn't expect Baldelli to move up to Durham for the next phase of his rehab, another indication that his activation might come sooner rather than later.
With the non-waiver trade deadline looming Thursday afternoon, it seems the Rays are looking just as closely at Baldelli as they are possible targets outside the organization to fill their need for a right-handed hitter.
"We are taking a good look at him right now and he's been responding very well, hitting the ball well, running better, playing on defense," Maddon said. "It seems to be the recovery's a little bit quicker, so we'll see. ... It has a good tone to it right now."
ROAD WARRIOR: Though the top end of the Rays' rotation universally prefers to pitch in the friendly confines of Tropicana Field, RHP Edwin Jackson is the exception.
His 3.71 road ERA is nearly a run better than his 4.64 home mark and the best among Rays starters. So why has he been more effective on the road?
"Maybe I've had more starts at home - more opportunity for something bad to happen," Jackson shrugged.
Quite a pessimistic outlook there, but the real answer could lie with the longball. Jackson has surrendered 10 home runs in 11 starts at home this season and only four homers in nine outings on the road - including two in his last start at Kansas City.
The ones at home have hurt a bit more, too. Three of those four longballs on the road were solo shots, while only half of the homers he has allowed at the Trop came with no one on base.
FULL HOUSE: Driven by the biggest name in the Rays' summer concert series, LL Cool J, Saturday's game against the Tigers sold out by 4 p.m. Tuesday. The only game to sell out earlier in Rays history was their inaugural contest in 1998.
The sellout will be the fifth this season at the Trop, a club record. The Rays are 14-1 this year when playing before home crowds of at least 30,000.