ST. PETERSBURG — Monday afternoon, ever valuable Ben Zobrist didn’t really study the lineup card when he hit the Rays clubhouse at Tropicana Field for what could be the final home game of the season (or not). He knew he’d start, but maybe assumed he’d man second base. He’s on pace to set a team fielding record at that position.
Eventually, Rays manager Joe Maddon wondered if Zobrist knew he’d be in left field, for only the second time this season, first time since mid-August. So Maddon sent third base coach Tom Foley, whom Maddon calls “Fo,” to go find Zo. So Fo found Zo, who didn’t know.
“You just go with it,” Zobrist said later.
You go with Zo.
In the end, the very end, it was James Loney’s pinch-hit homer leading off the bottom of the ninth inning that lifted the Rays to a 5-4 win over the Orioles and a sweep of a generally electrifying four games to bolster their playoff hopes.
“We could talk all about that, but I want to say this: Ben Zobrist’s play in left field today won tonight’s game,” Maddon said. “Zo’s defense won today’s game — period.”
There was Zo, wouldn’t you know.
In the seventh, with the Rays already down 4-2, Zobrist threw home to nail Baltimore pinch runner Alexi Casilla (for the injured Manny Machado), with Rays catcher Jose Molina making a great grab and block of the plate. Zobrist helped the Rays rally in the bottom of the inning, and Wil Myers tied it at 4 with a two-run single that a lunging Casilla nearly caught, spectaculary so.
Orioles catcher Matt Wieters led off the eighth with a double down the left-field line, into the Baltimore bullpen. Wieters hesitated, then rumbled for third. Zobrist fielded the ball, threw a one-hop strike to Yunel Escobar covering. Wieters was out.
So went Ben Zobrist’s first game in left since Aug. 13.
You go with Zo.
It’s been that way since he became a Ray: can do, will do. It was that way in this series, Zobrist doing things that went beyond hits and homers, like those great plays he made in Friday’s 18-inning marathon, at second base and in right field. And there was last season, when Zobrist stepped in at shortstop when the Rays were in trouble and settled down the infield.
Zobrist was picked for the All-Star game this season by Detroit manager Jim Leyland. It raised some eyebrows. But it spoke to the respect people have for him. This isn’t close to his best offensive season, his power numbers are way down, Zorilla no more, but he finds a way to beat you. Other managers know it, respect it, but Zobrist’s team most of all.
“He’s obviously probably the most versatile player we have on the team,” Rays third baseman Evan Longoria said. “... Just being able to go out in left field and make two outfield assists, the plays he made today ...”
Zobrist, the longest-tenured Rays player, was acquired in 2006 in a trade from Houston, which received Aubrey Huff in return. So don’t ever say Huffy never did anything for the Rays.
Here is Zo, Gentle Ben, still an all-around Ray of sunshine, on and off the field. He organizes faith and prayer sessions with teammates before batting practice. As he spoke after Monday’s win, his 4-year-old, Zion, raced around him. He asked his dad if he could have a piece of gum.
“You can have one,” Zo said.
Then he was talking about the catches Molina and Escobar made off his throws, about how Loney came through, about how everyone did.
Zobrist is 31, yet Maddon and his staff marvel at his humility as much as his utility — how coachable he remains, how he keeps learning, how sound his fundamentals are, at the plate, in the field, on the bases. Oh, yeah, and in his life.
Ben Zobrist was talking about the big win, how “You have to keep believing.”
He spotted his son reaching for more gum.
“One is enough,” he gently told Zion.
Zion listened, no argument.
You go with Zo.