ST. PETERSBURG -- Only a few months ago, Rocco Baldelli had a hard time imagining that his name would appear on a lineup card again for the Rays. Baldelli never lost hope in rejoining the only club he's ever known -- he just wasn't sure if it was a realistic dream.

On Friday evening, Baldelli was in the starting lineup as the Rays' designated hitter for Game 2 of the American League Division Series against the White Sox. After a season-long battle with a rare muscle disorder, Baldelli defied his own doubts and returned to Tampa Bay less than two months ago.

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That was satisfying enough for Baldelli. Being with the Rays for the franchise's first playoff experience has made his recovery that much sweeter.

"I wouldn't have thought I'd be even playing in any games," said Baldelli, sitting in the Rays dugout prior to Friday's game. "Just to be out here, it's almost like a special present someone gave me."

It's a gift Baldelli couldn't have fathomed during Spring Training, when it was revealed that the 27-year-old was fighting a mitochondrial disorder that slows muscle recovery and causes fatigue. At the time, Baldelli admits he was pondering a future outside of baseball -- unsure what this season would hold.

Baldelli considered going back to school, among other things. For now, he's happy that he can push those thoughts out of his mind and instead focus on contributing in these playoffs.

"If you think that your baseball career might be over," Baldelli said, "you're going to think about other things. You're going to think about maybe different ideas about what you're going to do in the future. I think that's pretty normal. I think that's what anyone would do.

"So, yeah, I had a lot of different thoughts. I was thinking about a lot of stuff that I probably shouldn't have been thinking about, just because I was scared. As of right now, I fully plan on helping this team win."

Getting to this point took a lot of effort, not only from Baldelli, but for Ron Porterfield, Tampa Bay's head athletic trainer. Baldelli missed the final 124 games of the 2007 season with hamstring issues and general soreness and wasn't able to rejoin the Rays until Aug. 10 of this season.

In between, Porterfield and the Rays' medical staff committed countless hours to working with Baldelli and to searching for any possible solutions for the persistent fatigue that plagued the talented young player.

"I know how much time has been spent on this," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I think it obviously starts with the players, then it goes to Ronnie -- I really believe that. Tireless, regarding the different kind of research, finding the right kind of people to match him up with all year.

"Last offseason, he'd call him, he'd write him. He's been the one behind this push. Of course the preponderence of credit must go to Rocco. But, beyond that, I really believe [Porterfield] has played a huge part of this."


"In the back of my mind, I always thought he'd be back. He is so gifted."
-- Manager Joe Maddon, on Rocco Baldelli

It also took a strong desire from Baldelli.

Stuck on the sidelines, Baldelli was forced to watch the organization that drafted him sixth overall in 2000 finally overcoming its long history of losing. It was bittersweet for Baldelli. On one hand, he was thrilled to see the Rays excelling in the AL East. Then again, he wanted very badly to join in the fun.

"It was nice and it was difficult at the same time," Baldelli said. "It was nice to see this team playing well and seeing all my teammates and friends doing so well, giving this area some nice notoriety and giving the area something to cheer about. I've been here a while and we haven't had any of that.

"But personally, it was difficult sitting on the side, because I knew I wanted to be a part of it."

Around June, Baldelli said he began making some strides in his recovery. By August, he was still experiencing symptoms -- as he is now as well -- but Baldelli has been able to play in games again. After returning to the lineup for the Rays, Baldelli played in 46 games down the stretch, hitting .263 with four home runs and 13 RBIs.

One of the runs he drove in came on Aug. 30, when Baldelli delivered a walk-off double to clinch a 10-9 victory over the Orioles. Baldelli was back. Maybe he hasn't returned to the same physical condition he was in a few years ago, but Baldelli had made it back to Tampa Bay's lineup in a big way.

"In the back of my mind, I always thought he'd be back," Maddon said. "He is so gifted. You watch him swing and hit, he's got this fluidness about him, just like everything else he does, in an athletic sense."

There is still the question of Baldelli's future. Even he's not sure what is in store.

"I have absolutely no idea, to be honest with you," Baldelli said. "It's not something that I'm really worried about at this point. I think that's something that I should think about in the offseason and I can deal with that when I get there."

One thing Baldelli does plan on doing is getting to the stack of letters waiting for him at home. Since news of his condition spread, and in light of his impressive return, he's heard from hundreds of people suffering similar symptoms and from groups seeking his help.

"I've had multiple organizations calling me to speak and to just help out in any way," Baldelli said. "It's tough right now with the playoffs going on and everything, but I'm sure I'll get to that kind of stuff in the offseason."

Right now, Baldelli doesn't want to focus on his own fight. He's more concerned about helping the Rays battle their way through October.

"Worrying about my physical health right now isn't going to do me much good," he said, "We have some pretty fun and pretty important stuff going on right now."