SEATTLE - Add another achievement to the Tampa Bay Rays' remarkable season: the return of outfielder Rocco Baldelli.
Oh, and that franchise-record 71st victory was pretty significant too.
Baldelli returned after missing more than a year, Willy Aybar homered twice, including a three-run shot, and Shawn Riggans added a three-run homer in the Rays' 11-3 rout of the Seattle Mariners yesterday.
Tampa Bay bettered its previous best record of 70-92 in 2004. The Rays improved to 71-46 by taking three of four in Seattle and own a 4 1/2-game lead over Boston in the American League East, their largest advantage since July 6.
"It's going to take more than that," manager Joe Maddon said bluntly afterward.
But multi-homer games and franchise win records didn't matter much in the Rays' clubhouse afterward. The attention belonged to a grinning Baldelli.
"I've said it before, there were times I didn't know if I was going to be playing anymore. I honestly didn't know," Baldelli said after going 1 for 4. "There were some scary times, too. Those are all behind me now, hopefully. I came out of it feeling good and I'm just really, really happy now."
The oft-injured Baldelli, a Rhode Island native, missed most of last season with a lingering hamstring problem, just another in a string of injuries that kept him sidelined for much of the 2005 and 2006 seasons. The Rays asked Baldelli to pace himself during spring training, but he was soon diagnosed with a mitochondrial disorder, a condition that slows muscle recovery and causes extreme fatigue.
Baldelli slowly worked himself into shape and with outfielder Carl Crawford going on the 15-day disabled list yesterday after injuring a tendon in the middle finger of his right hand, the Rays were in need of an outfielder.
Playing in his first game since May 15, 2007, Baldelli had an RBI single in the third inning and made a diving grab - or as he said "fall" - of Brian LaHair's shallow fly ball in the fifth. He was lifted in the sixth inning after getting four at-bats.
Aybar started at third base in place of Evan Longoria, who missed his third straight game with a sore right wrist after he was hit by a pitch Thursday night. Aybar gave Tampa Bay a 3-0 lead in the second with his fifth homer, barely clearing the top of the left-field wall. Aybar later hit a solo homer in the seventh in almost the identical spot.
Riggans's home run was his first since June 29.
Edwin Jackson (9-7) pitched seven strong innings, scattering seven hits and striking out two, to earn the win.