Baldelli returns to center, but Maddon still cautious

Published April 8, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - Rocco Baldelli made his first start in centerfield in 18 days Saturday against Toronto and will resume playing in the outfield more regularly this week. But Devil Rays manager Joe Maddon said it might not be on a daily basis.

Baldelli and Maddon said he will return to the designated hitter spot today and play centerfield Monday in Texas.

But Maddon said he might use Baldelli as a DH again.

"As Rocco is ready to go, we're going to start utilizing him," Maddon said. "But as I told him, now that we have options, the biggest thing is to keep his leg well and keep him involved in the lineup. So if he needs to DH more often, that's fine. ... We have different options this year than we had in the past."

Saturday marked Baldelli's first action in center since he pulled himself out of a spring training game March 20 with tightness in his right hamstring.

"I felt good going out there and running around," Baldelli said. "I think it does help to stay loose to be running around on the field."

Combine the emergence of Elijah Dukes in centerfield and B.J. Upton's ability to play the outfield and Maddon said he won't feel the need to play Baldelli in the outfield on a daily basis. Baldelli was the starting DH for two of the team's first three games, sitting out Thursday's game as a precaution because of cold weather.

"If I feel good, obviously I'd prefer to be out there playing," Baldelli said, "but I haven't played too much after missing the end of spring training, so maybe for a while this could be a good thing."

BIG NEWS ABROAD: Not only was Akinori Iwamura's 4-for-4 night Friday a big deal in the bay area, but the Japanese third baseman's achievements - in which he raised his average to .636, tied the team rookie record for hits in a game and scored the winning run - reached Japan, where he was featured on the cover of the Nikkan Sports News crossing home plate.

"It was a big deal in Japan," Iwamura said through interpreter Maya Koyanagi. "I got a lot of phone calls of congratulations. I'm very happy everyone is cheering for me. One of my goals is for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays to become more popular and for more people to know them in Japan."

MARQUEE MATCHUP: Today's series finale features a pitching battle between a pair of aces - the Rays' Scott Kazmir and the Blue Jays' Roy Halladay.

Maddon said he decided to give switch-hitting SS Ben Zobrist the night off Saturday so he could bat left-handed against the right-handed Halladay. 1B Carlos Pena, who made his first start Saturday, could add another needed left-handed bat.

"I think it's one of the better matchups in baseball when you look at the pitching matchups," Maddon said. "I think it's one of the tops. ... I think that's why Saturday is a big game in regards to winning the series. That's why I think (today) is tough with Halladay. He's a tough guy to beat, and I know Kaz will be ready for the challenge."

MISCELLANY: Carl Crawford's homer marked the 400th run of his career, tying Aubrey Huff for the most in club history. ... RHP Gary Glover's 21/3 hitless relief innings marked his first major-league appearance since Oct. 2, 2005. ... Two hit batters Saturday gave LHP Casey Fossum 42 since the start of the 2004 season, tying him for the major-league lead. ... Maddon wasn't sure whether C Dioner Navarro would play today in a day-after-night game. ... FSN's Inside the Devil Rays debuts at 1 today with a Todd Kalas feature on Iwamura.

Eduardo A. Encina can be reached at eencina@sptimes.com.