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Zobrist having breakout season

Zobrist having breakout season

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DENVER -- When Ben Zobrist came off the disabled list on May 13 last season with a fractured left thumb, he was launching home runs in batting practice. Teammates took note and started calling him "Gorilla," after the name of hip-hop artist Gorilla Zoe. Manager Joe Maddon heard of the nickname and adapted it to "Zorilla."

While his nickname changed, Zobrist's home run-hitting prowess has been on full display this season. Zobrist entered Thursday hitting .310 with 14 home runs and 39 RBIs.

Zobrist also had a .678 slugging percentage and an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of 1.098. He was four plate appearances short of qualifying for the American League lead in both categories.

Like his nickname, Zobrist's breakthrough 2009 season actually began last year, when he took on the role of super-utility player. With the arrival of Jason Bartlett at shortstop, Zobrist just wanted to find a way to play every day.

"I definitely like anywhere I can get on the field," Zobrist said. "I just want to be in that lineup. If I'm playing somewhere I'm not used to playing on a regular basis, I just try to do the best I can at that position. I feel like, defensively, wherever they stick me, I can help the team."

Zobrist carries a middle infielder's glove, a third baseman's glove, an outfielder's glove and a first baseman's glove, even though he has never played first base before. Once he got used to the role, he made one more key adjustment that's helped him bust out -- maturing as a hitter.

"I'm learning my swing and what makes me a better hitter," Zobrist, who was a career .222 hitter before this season, said. "I'm not trying to go outside of that and stay within myself as a hitter. I realized I could hit for power and for average."

Zobrist said nowadays he's focusing on what the opposing pitcher may do and making sure his swing feels good leading up to the game. During the game, he's taking each plate appearance pitch-by-pitch and making adjustments along the way.

As a result of his ability to put both offense and defense together, Maddon has compared Zobrist to a former 18-year veteran he once coached when he was with the Angels.

"As a super-utility guy goes, it might be kind of an odd comparison, but it's Tony Phillips," Maddon said. "Tony used to do all this stuff and hit for power."

Maddon has also had super-utility players such as 19-year veteran Mark McLemore and current Angel Chone Figgins. But what makes Zobrist as special as Phillips is that he's one of few players of his type with home run power, which McLemore and Figgins don't possess.

With newfound success, all there is left to do is for the world to know about Zobrist and his nickname.

"That's up to the Tampa Bay Rays in order to get that out there and maybe his agent himself," Maddon said. "Although I do want a little bit of a piece of the action."

Cheng Sio is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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