State of the Rays: Tampa Bay knows well Ben Zobrist's value
JUL 08, 2013 3:34p ET
There are many descriptions that fit. There are many ways he enhances the Tampa Bay Rays. To many, the infielder/outfielder was a surprise All-Star selection as an American League reserve when rosters were unveiled Saturday, but the honor is indicative of how he has gained a reputation throughout the league for his consistency.
“In some other organizations, I probably would have been pigeonholed into doing one thing and stuck there,” Zobrist told FOX Sports Florida on Saturday night. “But they have given me the opportunity to move around and switch hit and do a lot of different things to help the team win. That’s something I really try to work on. If there’s any particular part of my game that I feel is lacking, I try to work on that.”
There is something to Maddon’s comment about Zobrist’s selection being a nod to a full player. In an era when numbers, highlight reels and specialization shape reputations, Zobrist can be overlooked within a roster that includes understood stars ( Evan Longoria) and others who are rising ( James Loney).
Of course, Loney leads Tampa Bay with a .317 batting average, and Longoria paces the team in home runs (17) and RBI (49). Zobrist, by comparison, is strong but not as elite in the glamour categories: He is tied for fifth on the team with a .262 batting average, tied for seventh with five home runs and second in RBI with 45.
But there is a presence that Zobrist has produced in his seven-plus seasons with the Rays that draws praise and makes this second All-Star Game berth for him seem less than a stunning development. It is best displayed in an answer from Joyce, who paused when asked to name his favorite Zobrist moment.
“That’s tough, because he’s so consistent,” Joyce said. “You know what you’re going to get, as far as personality-wise. He’s not going to come in and throw bats and throw helmets. He’s just the same guy day-in and day-out. No matter what question you may have or what question you want to talk about, he’s always going to be the same type of person. Every day, Zo is the same.”
That approach by Zobrist to his craft contributes to the switch-hitting, versatile look he offers the Rays, both on offense and defense. As Joyce put it: “If you stay consistent with the mind-set, your personality means you’re going to come out of a funk. You’re not going to get too high or too low.”
That was seen in the most dramatic moment involving Zobrist this season, after Detroit Tigers right-hander Rick Porcello plunked him with a 94 mph fastball on the right wrist June 30 as likely retaliation for Fernando Rodney brushing back Miguel Cabrera the night before. A man with a shorter fuse might have escalated the scene. Instead, Zobrist shot a funny-looking grin toward the mound, as if to say, “Yeah, I know what you did.”
Later in the clubhouse, Zobrist was as upset as his mild-mannered disposition would allow. But he called his selection as the targeted player an honor, something in which he managed to find pride.
The moment was typical Zobrist: He was not too high. He was not too low. He was cool, composed, calculated.
He was even.
“He’s a guy where if you want to talk about (anything), he’s there for you,” Rays catcher Jose Lobaton said. “That’s good if you have guys like that. It makes you feel better, young guys like me. … When you’ve got a guy like him, you feel more comfortable with the team.”
Over time, comfort is something Zobrist has given the Rays. No, he is not Longoria. No, he has not matched Loney’s hit efficiency this season. No, he is not the largest star, the most decorated name within the Rays clubhouse.
But Zobrist is a steady asset, one that gives Tampa Bay flexibility, and many around him understand why: That, simply, is him. American League manager Jim Leyland understood as much when he selected Zobrist for the All-Star Game.
A surprise choice? Perhaps to some. But for a long time, the Rays have known what they have in Zobrist.
David Price has shown flashes of his American League Cy Young Award-winning form since returning from the disabled list after recovering from a strained left triceps. He is 2-0 and has allowed just one run and 11 hits in 16 innings in victories over the lowly Houston Astros and Chicago White Sox.
The competition may have been lacking, but Price was efficient in those outings. He has faced 55 batters in his past two starts and has only thrown one three-ball count in that time, against Chicago’s Dayan Viciedo in the sixth inning Sunday. That afternoon, Price became the first Rays pitcher to throw a complete game since James Shields did so against the Baltimore Orioles on Oct. 2, 2012.
Is Price back? It is too early to say, but he has looked strong early in this fresh start for him.
Evan Longoria has hit .150 (3 for 20) in six appearances since July 2. Those numbers come after a three-day absence because he irritated the plantar fasciitis in his right foot in a loss to the Detroit Tigers on June 28.
Longoria has looked more than fine at third base since returning to the position Friday in a victory over the Chicago White Sox. However, his production at the plate has dipped of late: He has had one multiple-hit game in July, that coming when he went 2 for 4 in a victory over the Houston Astros on July 2.
Otherwise, his bat has been searching. Longoria has been held hitless in four of six games since his return from the foot issue.
Quotes of the week
''That's probably the best I've felt on a baseball field maybe in my entire life, honestly. I felt like that's the most control I've had of a baseball game in a very long time. I think that was better than I threw the ball really at any point last year.''
— Left-hander David Price last Tuesday, after he struck out 10 batters in seven innings during the Rays’ victory over the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park. Price threw 70 pitches, only allowing three hits, in his first game back after a 47-day disabled list stint because of a strained left triceps.
“The arm isn’t the issue here. It’s the other things going on. It was good to be able to get the heart rate up and the physical activities going and it not be an issue.”
— Right-hander Alex Cobb last Friday, after he threw a 29-pitch bullpen session at Tropicana Field. It was his first bullpen session since being placed on the concussion disabled list with a mild concussion on June 16.
“Whoever designed them, I thought they did a really good job with it. It definitely reeks of the mid-70s. I like that. It brings back a lot of wonderful memories. My first uniform was kind of like that with the Angels. … It’s kind of fun to wear them, and I think the fans will appreciate them.”
— Manager Joe Maddon last Saturday, before the Rays wore a hypothetical retro uniform at Tropicana Field for a second consecutive year said to depict what the team would have looked like in 1979. Tampa Bay’s inaugural season happened in 1998 as the Devil Rays.
45-14: Combined score of the Rays’ past eight games, during which Tampa Bay has gone 7-1. The stretch includes one victory over the Detroit Tigers and three each over the Houston Astros and Chicago White Sox.
9: Victories by Rays starting pitchers since June 23, a major-league high. The run includes 12 quality starts and a 1.95 ERA with a .193 opponent batting average. From June 9-22, Rays starters were 3-7 with a 6.24 ERA, the worst in the majors.
16: Games part of James Loney’s hitting streak, which was a career-high for the eight-year veteran, before he went hitless in three at-bats in a victory over the White Sox on Sunday. He tied Evan Longoria for the team-high (May 6-22), but Jason Bartlett’s 19-game hitting streak in 2009 remains the club record.
Tweet of the week
Tonight’s in-game entertainment and 70s music was the best ever. Hats off to the people upstairs. I was totally entertained.— Joe Maddon (@RaysJoeMaddon) July 7, 2013
Saturday was “Turn Back the Clock Night” at Tropicana Field, and as you might guess, it included a variety of 1970s touches. The Rays and Chicago White Sox wore uniforms from the era — or in the Rays’ case, what they might have looked like had they played 19 years before their creation.
But there was more: Music from the '70s was played, and there were '70s visuals on the videoboard beyond the right-field wall, including a moment when Tampa Bay’s defensive lineup was introduced to “The Brady Bunch” theme song.
But one of the night’s best highlights had to be “The Gong Show” act, starring the Rays’ own gong introduced behind right field before the season. The experience received Maddon’s stamp of approval. Give points for creativity all around.
You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.