BY KEVIN McNAMARA
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Although he won't say so just yet, it is clear that Rocco Baldelli will get his first start in this series in Game Three against lefty Jon Lester.
The Rays started Gabe Gross for the second consecutive game. Gross is an offensive liability (.111, 1-of-9 in the playoffs) but can play right field. Baldelli is limited in his defensive outings and is usually inserted into the lineup strictly as a designated hitter.
After returning to the Rays' lineup after his season-long illness, Baldelli played in 46 games down the stretch, hitting .263 with four home runs and 13 RBIs.
Earlier this week, Tampa manager Joe Maddon had some glowing things to say about the Cumberland native.
"Rocco being back and being as athletically gifted as he is -- he really is,'' he said. "This young man, I know you got a chance to see him a couple years ago, but physically gift-wise he's one of the tops in the American League. Getting him to play on a regular basis, again, would be beautiful. Just being able to utilize him as we have as a right fielder- DH, possibly pinch-hitter is all great. But also his influence and his stability within the clubhouse matters. I'm really big into all that stuff. I think it goes well beyond your batting average.''
Maddon pointed out that Baldelli is one of the fan favorites in this area, not only because he's been with the franchise for a while but the fans also appreciate his battle with health issues.