Devil Rays have an impact player in Baldelli

If the new and soon-to-be improved Tampa Bay Devil Rays have a face, it's surely that of Rocco Baldelli.

A first-round pick in the 2000 draft, the former Rhode Island schoolboy star has made an immediate impact in the first week of the season. He's hit safely in each of the Rays' first seven games.

His first major-league hit, on Opening Day, was a stinging double to left, breaking up a no-hit bid by the Red Sox's Pedro Martinez. The following night, he charged a soft single to center in the 15th inning and gunned down Boston's Trot Nixon at the plate to preserve a tie.

As might be expected for someone with 96 at-bats above Double A, Baldelli has struggled some. On Sunday, he fanned four times against the Yankees' Roger Clemens. But during his final at-bat, against Juan Acevedo, he made some adjustments and collected a single, extending his hitting streak.

But it's on the basepaths where Baldelli really has captured people's attention. In the first series of the year, the Red Sox clocked Baldelli between 3.8 and 3.9 seconds from the batter's box to first base -- a spectacular time for a left-handed hitter, but almost unheard of for someone hitting from the right side.

"He's as quick down to first from the right side (batter's box) as anyone I've ever seen," Red Sox manager Grady Little said. "We're going to have to shorten up (in our infield positioning) for that very reason."

Boston second baseman Todd Walker can vouch for that. Twice in extra innings during the 16-inning marathon between the Red Sox and Devil Rays, Baldelli hit relatively routine choppers to Walker and beat them out for infield singles. He had three hits in nine at-bats; none left the infield.

"He surprised me when he beat them out," Walker said. "I've played against Ichiro (Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners), and this kid is getting down the line faster than Ichiro."

Manager Lou Piniella had hoped to insert Baldelli lower in the batting order so as to not place extra pressure on him. But after watching Baldelli for six weeks in spring training, Piniella gave into temptation and hit Baldelli second, behind fellow outfield phenom Carl Crawford, in part because he didn't have anyone better.

Hitting second hasn't unnerved Baldelli, who displays an uncommon maturity for his age and seems unfazed by suggestions that the Rays are rushing him.

"I don't let things that people say or write affect me one way or another," he said. "I'm going to work hard to get better, so whether I do it here or somewhere else is not my decision. I feel like I'm ready to be here. I feel like I can be here a long time."

Not even a foolish comment from Rays owner Vince Naomoli -- who, noting Baldelli's heritage and uniform No. 5, made a comparison to Joe DiMaggio -- seemed to distract Baldelli.

"I think this kid is going to be a special player," Little gushed. "There's no doubt in my mind that this guy is going to come under the category of players you'd pay to see play."

Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.