Zobrist more of a key cog this time around

Zobrist more of a key cog this time around

ARLINGTON -- Most Major Leaguers have dealt with their share of professional despair, after all, the sport lends itself to failure.

Ben Zobrist first became a part of a postseason roster with the Rays in 2008 after reinventing himself on the field.

Zobrist's rock bottom came in 2007.

That's when Zobrist began the season as the Rays' shortstop only to get sent down after a slow start. Zobrist cut a somber figure in Baltimore's visiting clubhouse after receiving the news that he would be heading to Triple-A Durham.

Baltimore "was the beginning of the bottom," Zobrist said. "That whole year was kind of the bottom for me and culminated in getting injured at the end of the year -- straining an oblique, which is an odd injury for me. That whole year was tumultuous and a test and a trial.

"It's something that made me stronger, because I did have to fight through it. It made me believe and have faith that all things that happen to me are, just because it may be negative circumstances, doesn't mean it's going to be negative overall, unless I allow it to be."

Zobrist worked hard to salvage his career, turning from a Punch-and-Judy contact hitter to a legitimate power threat. The first signs of the change came during the 2008 season, when he had four stints with the Rays, finishing with 12 home runs in 62 games. Four of his home runs came in the club's final four games of the season at Detroit, earning him co-American League Player of the Week honors. No doubt Zobrist's finish to the season coupled with his flexibility helped get him onto the '08 playoff roster, a nice extra.

By the end of the 2009 season, Zobrist had become the Rays' "Mr. Versatility," playing every position in the field other than pitcher and catcher, and his offense surged as well, as he hit .297 with 27 home runs and 91 RBIs and was voted team MVP by the writers who cover the club.

Now in his second postseason, Zobrist can look in the rearview mirror and see a lot of distance between the present and his past.

"A couple years ago, it was just so much excitement just being a part of [being on a playoff team], just excited to actually make the playoff roster a couple years ago and just be around the team during that time," Zobrist said. "I think it was a special time for everybody. It was the first time for most guys in the playoffs around here.

"And this time around, you know, we're more focused on winning. That's the goal here. We don't just want to make it to the playoffs. We're not satisfied with just making it here. You know, I think all of us that experienced that in 2008, we want to win the World Series. We made it there, but we want to win it. So that's been our goal all year."

Being down 0-2, the Rays obviously are in a hole. Prior to Game 2, Zobrist was asked about being a leader on the team and if he might say anything to get the clubhouse into the right frame of mind, to which Zobrist responded: "I don't know that that's really my thing."

"There are plenty of other guys in the clubhouse that do that for us," Zobrist said.

Zobrist, who is deeply religious, might be selling himself short. Evan Longoria has called him the heartbeat of the team.

"The way he plays, there's not any lack of effort in him every time he plays," said Sean Rodriguez. "Everything he does is full throttle. He goes after it. He carries himself in a very professional way as he should. He's a good role model. He walks the walk a lot of people can't. I'm not saying he's perfect. He'll tell you himself. But he walks what he talks, and he sure is trying."

Yes, the Rays' backs are to the wall. But Zobrist, like most of the players in Tampa Bay's clubhouse, feel that based on their track record, anything is possible.

"I think earlier, a couple years ago, it would have been easy for us to get down if we went down in a series," Zobrist said. "But I think it seems like for me I can remember a lot of series this year where we lost the first game and ended up winning the series. I think it just doesn't bother us. We know that it's going to happen at different times. ... We even felt that this past week when we were in Kansas City. We felt like we had to win those last two games. Our backs were against the wall if we wanted to win the division, and we did. We know we're capable of it. We don't panic in a situation like this, and it's important for the team not to panic and be confident that you're going to go out there and win the last game."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.