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Zaun plays hero in win over Blue Jays

Zaun plays hero in win over Blue Jays

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ST. PETERSBURG -- The count stretched full in the bottom of the eighth inning and Gregg Zaun had a decent idea what he was going to see.

The Rays' new catcher, now a pinch-hitter in a tie game with the bases loaded, reached down and rubbed some dirt on his bare hands and spit twice into his palms. A fastball, he figured, was going to come from Brandon League, the Toronto reliever Zaun caught just a year ago when he played for the Blue Jays.

Zaun's not the archetypal hero. But he played the role for his new team on Sunday.

Zaun ripped a 3-2 fastball into the right-field stands at Tropicana Field for a go-ahead grand slam. It lifted Tampa Bay past Toronto, 5-2, in a much-needed victory in the rubber match of a weekend series in front of 24,625 at Tropicana Field on Sunday afternoon.

It was the fifth grand slam of Zaun's career, and the first since he hit a walk-off over the Rays on Sept. 6, 2008, when he was a member of the very Toronto team he helped beat Sunday.

"I didn't really think about it until I got in and the guys were in here reminding me of the one I hit last year," Zaun said. "Just running around the bases, feeling great, exuberant, I just want to do whatever I can to help."

Zaun, who was acquired from Baltimore on Aug. 7 in exchange for a Minor League prospect, is a gritty, old-school, 38-year-old veteran with long hair, tattoos and a passion for rock music. Before Sunday's game, he cued up the clubhouse speakers to full volume and pumped in heavy metal to wake up and energize a Rays team that sometimes sleepwalks through day games.

"From 8 o'clock on, he set the tone," Rays reliever J.P. Howell said. "We came in there, he had the music going and he said he was going to change the day-game attitude. It was one of the most fun day games I've had in a while."

The grand slam ended a pitchers' duel between the two clubs, started by Rays right-hander Matt Garza and Blue Jays left-handed rookie Marc Rzepczynski. Neither offense seemed to be able to string clutch hits together. Both pitchers often danced along fine lines of effectiveness.

Garza walked a tightrope several times in his five innings of work. He loaded the bases with no outs in the third inning but worked out of trouble. He gave up leadoff singles in three consecutive innings, and he allowed two runners to reach base with fewer than two outs in the first, third, fourth and fifth innings.

"I made pitches when I had to," Garza said. "They hit a lot of seeing-eye singles today, and that was kind of the result of my day."

But Garza surrendered only one run, which scored on an RBI single by Vernon Wells in the fifth that resulted in a rough collision at home plate between Aaron Hill and Rays catcher Dioner Navarro. Hill was ruled safe, though he went in shoulder-first to Navarro, who stood his ground but couldn't quite apply the tag.

That run tied the score at 1-1. Garza left after five innings and gave up eight hits and two walks and struck out seven.

"We needed this game today," Garza said. "I'm just disappointed that I only went five. I'm a better pitcher than that. It's just the way it is."

With one out in the eighth, Rays second baseman Ben Zobrist singled and Carlos Pena doubled off of League. After Willy Aybar was intentionally walked to load the bases, pinch-hitter Gabe Gross struck out at the end of a 10-pitch at-bat. That brought up Zaun, pinch-hitting for Navarro, in his first clutch opportunity with Tampa Bay.

Zaun has played for eight teams in his career, including a five-year stint with Toronto up until last season. The grand slam he hit against the Rays at Rogers Centre last September came in the 13th inning and gave the Jays a 7-4 win. At the time, he called it one of the highlights of his career.

He can add this latest drive to the list. It's clear that in little more than a week, from rock music to home runs, Zaun's quickly making an impact with his new team.

"I really don't have much trouble making friends. I'm not shy," Zaun joked. "But big things like this do make people like you a little bit more. That helps with their impression of you."

Zach Schonbrun 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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