Baldelli sends Rays to walk-off win
Designated hitter's ninth-inning double secures victory
ST. PETERSBURG -- There were some bumps for the Rays and bruises for Rocco Baldelli. But when the designated hitter smashed a two-seamer from Orioles reliever Rocky Cherry down the left-field line to score Carlos Pena in the bottom of the ninth inning, the pain that ensued was well worth it.
Making just his seventh start since being activated from the disabled list on Aug. 10, Baldelli's game-ending RBI double delivered the knockout punch in a series-clinching 10-9 win on Saturday in front of 34,805 fans at Tropicana Field.
Already battered from hit-by-pitches in his previous two at-bats, the mosh pit of bodies that flooded the field and piled on Baldelli was a far cry from the dings he took to the chest and triceps.
And an even farther cry from the pain and constant fatigue that has hindered the 26-year-old all year.
Diagnosed with a rare mitochondrial disorder that threatened to end his career prematurely, Baldelli rejoined the Rays earlier this month thanks to a combination of medication, treatments and lifestyle adjustments.
"It was fun to be on the bottom [of the pile]," Baldelli said. "I got handled pretty good. But I enjoyed every second."
Taking a quick glance at the field on Saturday afternoon, it was hard to tell who enjoyed Baldelli's moment of glory the most.
There was B.J. Upton with a raised fist running alongside Akinori Iwamura, Shawn Riggans serving up a celebratory shaving cream pie in Baldelli's face and a giant crowd at The Trop on their feet with thunderous applause.
"It's the best baseball story of the year," reliever J.P. Howell said. "And it's going to keep going."
Karma aside, it was Baldelli's heart and Pena's hustle that put win No. 83 in the books and kept the Rays on top by 4 1/2 games in the American League East.
"What he's done to come back and to win a ballgame like that is just huge for him, huge for us and huge for the city," Rays starter Andy Sonnanstine said.
It wasn't such smooth sailing leading up to the storybook ending. Sonnanstine struggled on the hill, tying a season low with 3 1/3 innings. Two of the Orioles' seven hits off the right-hander were the long variety. Jay Payton and former Ray Aubrey Huff both went yard off the right-hander for five quick runs.
Howell came on in relief and kept the damage to a minimum, fanning four and tossing 2 2/3 innings of one-run baseball.
"I just thought if we could somehow stop them for a minute, we could come back," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "And that's what J.P. did."
Tampa Bay took the lead for the first time behind Howell, as Pena's sixth-inning double scored Iwamura and Upton. The Rays first baseman advanced to third on a wild pitch, then scored to give his club a short-lived lead when Willy Aybar hit into a double play.
"Carlos has really elevated his game," Maddon said. "And he's setting a great example for the rest of the group."
Pena drew a two-out walk to load the bases in the seventh inning, setting up Baldelli's first RBI, courtesy of Alberto Castillo hitting him with a pitch. And it was Pena again who walked with one out in the ninth inning and watched the magic unfold.
"I was on first base and you almost feel the vibe," Pena said. "You're like, 'OK, something good is going to happen.' And look at that, he hits a laser down the line, we win the ballgame. It's the perfect story, and it's not over yet."
In fact, it's just getting started.
"I know that everybody feels especially happy for [Baldelli], and yet, from where I'm standing, he looks really comfortable out there," Maddon said. "We just got to play this one right and keep him strong and healthy, and he's going to really contribute strong over this last month."
Following Nick Markakis' game-tying solo homer in the top of the ninth off Dan Wheeler, Baldelli's hit gave the Rays their 13th consecutive series win. And the 10th walk-off win just added another name to a seemingly endless list of late-inning heroes.
But Saturday night was about far more than another cog in the Rays' first-place wheel.
It was about a young man who has come full circle to help a team that is arguably the best story in baseball.
"I think we're all glad we got the win," Upton said. "But it makes it a little bit better that he got the winning hit."
And Baldelli will relish it far longer than Maddon's standard 30-minute rule.
"There were probably more people running at me, but for some reason, I can just picture B.J. and Aki running right at me," Baldelli said. "And it's a nice feeling -- something that I'll remember for a while."
Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.