Reserve role suiting Rays' Zobrist well

Reserve role suiting Rays' Zobrist well

Even after hitting a game-winning pinch-hit grand slam Friday against the White Sox, Ben Zobrist knew better than to look for his name in Tampa Bay's lineup Saturday.

The 27-year-old utility player knows his role with the defending American League champions. And he's happy that Rays manager Joe Maddon lets him play it.

"A guy in my situation a couple of years ago, some managers would've just buried me," Zobrist said Saturday. "Joe continued to try and build confidence in me when I didn't have any confidence, when I was struggling, trying to figure out where my place was up here. That confidence just kind of blew up last year once I started being able to hit the ball out of the ballpark. So I really have to give a lot of credit to the organization and what Joe and the coaching staff has done."

What Maddon and his staff have done with Zobrist is transform the former full-time, switch-hitting shortstop into one of the most important components of Tampa Bay's bench. Zobrist's transformation actually began the final two months of the 2008 season, when he batted .253 in 62 games and hit an unexpected 12 home runs in a part-time role.

He has already played center field and right field this season, in addition to stepping up as Maddon's most reliable option as a right-handed pinch-hitter. Friday's grand slam was of the pinch-hit variety and was his third slam since he was recalled for good on Aug. 5.

Sunday, he'll make his first start of the season at shortstop in place of Jason Bartlett, who'll receive his first scheduled day off.

It was the acquisition of Bartlett before last season through a trade with the Twins that initially left Zobrist's Rays career in limbo. No longer would the team have to hope that Zobrist would develop into the everyday shortstop, but Maddon still saw potential enough to find a way to keep Zobrist in the mix.

If that meant a move to the outfield, or to second base, or to third base, then so be it. Still, the .318 lifetime hitter in the Minors had yet to find his batting stroke in the Majors.

After batting .366 with four home runs in 20 games for Triple-A Durham last season, Zobrist returned to the Rays in August and proceeded to hit home runs more frequently (one every 16.5 at-bats) than such established middle-infield sluggers as Philadelphia's Chase Utley (one home run every 18.4 at-bats) and Florida's Dan Uggla (one every 16.6).

"That is really what sets him apart," Maddon said, "and why you would even consider him as a starter now at some point in his career because of how well he's begun to hit the ball and hit for power."

For now, Zobrist is more than happy to settle for what he has with the Rays: a defined, valuable role on a championship-caliber team.

"I think the best way to extend my career is to keep as many options open as possible. And that's what they're giving me the opportunity to do here," Zobrist said. "I feel like as long as I can play up the middle, teams are going to be comfortable taking me on as a role player and maybe even as an everyday player, which I hope in some capacity to be someday. But I'm really happy with where I'm at and I don't want to get too far ahead of myself right now."

Pitching matchup
TB: RHP Matt Garza (1-0, 1.93 ERA)
Garza gave the Rays another quality start in his second start of the season Tuesday night against the Yankees, when he allowed two runs on five hits in seven innings. Garza has the best stuff on the staff and at age 25, the right-hander seems to be maturing on the mound, where he has experienced problems controlling his emotions in the past. The one thing he has lacked is consistency -- he has been either lights-out or didn't have it. He needs to better learn how to win when he doesn't have his best stuff. Garza is 1-1 with a 4.97 ERA in three career starts against the White Sox.

CWS: RHP Gavin Floyd (1-1, 6.00 ERA)
Floyd gave up two runs and struck out nine over seven innings in his first start this season, but suffered the loss at home to Kansas City. On Monday in Detroit, Floyd walked seven and gave up five hits over five laborious innings, but still picked up the victory. Floyd struck out two and gave up six runs, throwing just 49 of his 98 pitches for strikes in improving to 5-0 lifetime against the Tigers and 3-0 at Comerica Park. Floyd has never faced Tampa Bay during the regular season, but lost to the Rays in Game 4 of the 2008 American League Division Series.

Tidbits
Rays reliever Jason Isringhausen threw 27 pitches in a two-inning extended spring outing Saturday at the team's complex in Port Charlotte, Fla., and will be assigned to Double-A Montgomery to begin a rehabilitation assignment. Isringhausen is trying to work his way back from right elbow surgery. ... Maddon will manage his 499th game for Tampa Bay on Sunday, tying original Rays manager Larry Rothschild at the top of the team's all-time list. Maddon also will receive his 2008 American League Manager of the Year Award on Sunday. ... Rays third baseman Evan Longoria received his 2008 AL Rookie of the Year Award before Saturday's game. ... Longoria extended his career-best hit streak to 10 games Saturday with a first-inning single, giving him a hit in every game he's played this season. Rocco Baldelli hit safely in his first 13 games in 2003, the team record at the start of a season.

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Up next
• Monday: Off-day
• Tuesday: Rays (Andy Sonnanstine, 0-1, 6.52) at Mariners (Jarrod Washburn, 2-0, 1.29), 10:10 p.m. ET
• Wednesday: Rays (Jeff Niemann, 0-2, 6.35) at Mariners (Chris Jakubauskas, 1-1, 3.86), 10:10 p.m. ET

Carter Gaddis is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.