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09/05/10 7:21 PM ET

Baldelli homers on his first swing of season

BALTIMORE -- The Rays had just lost a tough 8-7 game to the surging Orioles in the middle of a pennant race on Sunday, yet there was one play that made Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon smile.

Rocco Baldelli entered the game as a pinch-hitter and hit a two-run homer in the seventh inning off O's reliever Michael Gonzalez that pulled the Rays to within a run. It was Baldelli's first at-bat this season, and the timing couldn't have been better for a player who's battled through a lot in recent years.

"That's beautiful, isn't it?" Maddon said. "That ball was well struck, too. That's a great moment for him. It's a great moment for us as a group. It was kind of special, actually. It's very cool."

Baldelli was rehabbing shoulder issues during the offseason after playing with Boston during the 2009 season. He'd been with the Rays for five seasons before that, often working through some tough health issues.

In fact, the 28-year old actually began the 2010 season working with the Rays as a special instructor during Spring Training. The team then signed him to a Minor League deal on July 19, and Baldelli played at Class A Charlotte for 12 games before moving to Triple-A Durham, where he batted .273 in 11 games.

The Rays selected him from Triple-A on Wednesday, and he got his first at-bat when Maddon sent him up to pinch-hit for Matt Joyce in the seventh inning. Baldelli hit a shot into the left-field seats on his first swing.

"It felt pretty great, to be honest," Baldelli said. "It was nice to get back in there. Rarely is it going to work out like that, but I'll take it. From the end of last year until now, I didn't know if I'd be back here and be back playing and to come back and put a good swing on a ball the first day back is nice."

Rays focused on Yanks, not Red Sox

BALTIMORE -- The Rays will be heading to Boston after finishing their three-game series with the Orioles on Sunday, but manager Joe Maddon said they aren't as focused on burying the Red Sox as they are on catching the Yankees.

"It's not about looking back at them, it's about looking forward at the Yankees," Maddon said. "I want us to keep in mind that we're trying to win the division, period. It's not about worrying about the Red Sox catching us, it's about us catching the Yankees, and I would much prefer that kind of outlook."

Tampa Bay entered Sunday's series finale with the Orioles 2 1/2 games behind the streaking Yankees, who had won eight in a row. The Rays lost another game following Baltimore's 8-4 victory Saturday night, but Maddon emphasized that they've got plenty of time left.

In fact, seven of the team's 27 remaining games are with New York. The Rays hold a 7 1/2-game edge on Boston entering Sunday, another reason Maddon wants his team looking forward rather than backwards.

This season also could turn out like 2008, when Tampa Bay played Boston 18 times in the regular season and then seven more in the American League Championship Series. But Maddon said he wouldn't mind a repeat of that, with the Yankees replacing the Red Sox, especially if the Rays could get a Game 7 at home again.

"If everything breaks right, at some point, you're going to play [the Yankees]," Maddon said. "That's going to be rather exciting -- like what happened with the Red Sox in 2008."

There's no question that Tampa Bay could end any hopes Boston has of making the playoffs in this upcoming series. But Maddon wants the Rays to keep thinking about catching the Yankees.

"To win the American League East is probably one of the best accomplishments of all professional sports," Maddon said. "If you win a division, win that one."

Maddon gives Pena a break on Sunday

BALTIMORE -- Rays manager Joe Maddon said there's nothing wrong with first baseman Carlos Pena, but he just wanted to give him a break, and that's why the skipper kept him out of the starting lineup for Sunday's game.

Pena came into Sunday with a .205 average, 26 homers and 77 RBIs. But he's been struggling in recent games.

Pena went 0-for-4 in Saturday's 8-4 loss, which made him hitless in eight at-bats in the first two games against the Orioles, so Maddon thought a rest wouldn't hurt him.

"I thought he looked a little bit off, and [I] wanted to give him a day," Maddon said.

Hellickson felt comfortable in relief appearance

BALTIMORE -- Jeremy Hellickson made his first Major League appearance in relief in Saturday's 8-4 loss to the Orioles, giving up two runs and six hits in 1 2/3 innings, but he said he felt fine on the mound in a different role.

Hellickson went 12-3 with a 2.45 ERA in 21 starts at Triple-A Durham and was named the 2010 International League Pitcher of the Year. This was his first appearance in relief in four years.

The right-hander warmed up twice while starter James Shields was struggling during his 4 1/3-inning stint.

"I felt really comfortable," Hellickson said. "I felt ready after the first time I got up. I felt fine and my stuff felt really good out there."

Manager Joe Maddon said Hellickson won't be available for Sunday's series finale.

Maddon was on hand for Ripken's milestone

BALTIMORE -- Sunday was the 15th anniversary of when Cal Ripken Jr. tied Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games played (2,130). The former Oriole threw out the first pitch in Sunday's game, and talking about the game in 1995 brought back a few memories to Rays manager Joe Maddon.

Maddon was a coach with the Angels at that time, and he was working in the same dugout the Rays were in Sunday. Maddon pointed out the spot he was standing in while Ripken made his famous lap around the field after breaking the record, and talked about some of the things he remembers from that night.

One of the things that sticks out to Maddon is how one of the umpires -- the skipper thinks it was Larry Barnett -- got a ball at the end of the inning and quietly stuck it in Maddon's back pocket.

"The sad part is I don't know where that ball is, but he did do that," Maddon said.

But Maddon said it was impressive watching the way Ripken handled everything with such style and grace.

"The place was absolutely electric," Maddon said. "There's bulbs flashing everywhere. He handled it better than anybody could have handled it. The thing I've always admired about him -- and this is my interpretation by watching him -- is that he was always playing a game. It was never work."

Jeff Seidel is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.