© 2006 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.

06/07/06 8:56 PM ET

Notes: A long-awaited return

Baldelli starts in center after missing 221 games with injuries

ST. PETERSBURG -- When Rocco Baldelli jogged onto the field for pregame warmups on Wednesday, his teammates hooted, cheered, whistled and clapped. Baldelli raised his hands above his head and pumped his fists before taking his place in center field to prepare for his first game as a Devil Ray in nearly two years.

"That's the most fun I've had in almost two years, it was a great day for me," said Baldelli, who went 0-for-3 and recorded four putouts in center field during the Rays' 6-2 loss. "I've been waiting for this almost two years now, it's a great feeling. It's a long time not to be playing, especially in something you love to do."

Rays manager Joe Maddon joked that if second baseman Jorge Cantu had butterflies before returning to the lineup after missing 39 games, Baldelli probably had a bunch of "little Dumbos" flying around in his stomach. The 24-year-old outfielder has been absent from Tampa Bay's lineup since Oct. 3, 2004, a total of 221 games.

"I'm sure there's got to be some mental barriers he's probably going to have to chip away at after being gone for so long, and having had some serious injuries," Maddon said. "But I'm sure he's going to be fine also."

If Baldelli was nervous at all, he didn't show it, charging around the outfield for pops and grounders, and to backup the other outfielders. Of course, he admits, his teammates helped lighten the mood before he even stepped onto the field.

"It was nice; I got a fire extinguisher in my locker and a hard hat [from my teammates], I got all kinds of stuff tonight when I got here," Baldelli said. "They had fun with it. It was a fun day for me. Everything was nice today. The fans were great. Obviously, you'd want to get some hits when you're playing and want to win the ballgame, but besides that, everything's going well."

It's been a long, arduous road to recovery from surgery to repair a torn ACL in his knee and Tommy John elbow surgery, and most recently a strained hamstring, but Baldelli has weathered the storm and batted seventh and played center field Wednesday against the Angels.

Maddon cautioned that even though Baldelli is healthy once again, it will still take time for him to return to his old playing form.

"This guy hasn't played in a while; the expectations on him may be way too high," Maddon said. "I don't want any high expectations placed on him right now. I just want him to come out and play, and get back into enjoying playing the game on a daily basis, not in any way, shape or form believing he has to be a savior of any kind, just come out and be himself and play.

"I just want him to come out, enjoy playing baseball again and be healthy. And then we'll work from there."

Before landing on the disabled list again in Spring Training, Baldelli was hitting .333 (12-for-36) with four doubles, a home run, six RBIs, three stolen bases and 11 runs scored. He played 12 games during his latest rehab assignment at Triple-A Durham, and hit .404 (19-for-47) with five doubles, four RBIs and four walks.

"He's been very well," Maddon said. "We could've waited a couple more days [to take him off the DL] but he's been swinging the bat great and playing well."

Roster move: Left-hander Casey Fossum rejoined the rotation from the disabled list after nursing a mild groin strain he suffered in a May 22 outing. To make room for Fossum, the Rays optioned right-hander Doug Waechter to Triple-A Durham.

Waechter was 1-4 this season with a rotation-high 6.62 ERA through 11 games.

"We just felt this is the right thing to do at this point," said Maddon, who said he didn't yet know whether Waechter would join the Bulls' rotation or work from the bullpen. "We want [Waechter] to really work on some of the things we continue to try to get him to do here, and it might be a little bit easier going back to a Triple-A setting to work through some [of it]."

Rays team, assemble! Baldelli's return marked the first time this season that the projected starting lineup has been active all at once. Baldelli (59 games), Cantu (39), shortstop Julio Lugo (28) and third baseman Aubrey Huff (21) had missed a combined 147 games this season entering Wednesday, because of injury.

"We've talked about it all offseason," Maddon said. "This is the group, maybe minus Rocco, that had played so well together. And now you're able to put that name within this group, and it's kind of nice to be able to do that."

Cast your vote: Jonny Gomes is currently the 15th most popular vote on the AL outfielder portion of the 2006 All-Star Game voting, with 175,629 votes. The Angels' Vladimir Guerrero leads all outfielders with 745,397 votes.

By the numbers: The Rays are 10-21 on the road in 2006, with two more wins already than in the entire first half last season. Tampa Bay didn't win its 10th road game last year until July 16.

Did you know?: Carl Crawford hit his 53rd career triple on Tuesday night, moving him one behind Hall of Famer Tris Speaker for 16th on the list of most triples before the age of 25. Crawford has 60 days left until his 25th birthday.

Up next: Tampa Bay is off Thursday before hitting the road on a 10-game trip to Kansas City, Detroit and Philadelphia. On Friday, the Rays send left-hander Mark Hendrickson to the mound against the Royals. Kansas City will counter with lefty Mark Redman. First pitch is set for 8:10 p.m. ET.

Dawn Klemish is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.