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Zaun acclimates quickly to St. Pete

Zaun acclimates quickly to St. Pete

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ST. PETERSBURG -- Many catchers will tell you it usually takes them a full season to truly grasp their team's pitching staff.

Gregg Zaun didn't have that much time.

The veteran backstop came to the Rays via trade from the Orioles on Aug. 7 and was told he'd be platooning -- facing mostly right-handed starters -- with Dioner Navarro behind the plate. Lucky for Tampa Bay, though, this is Zaun's 15th season in the big leagues -- eighth in the American League East, in particular -- and he has constantly studied opposing pitchers, even when he wasn't playing.

As an opponent, Rays starters were no different.

"Usually, once I've caught them once or twice, that's it, because I pay attention -- even when I'm not catching -- to what they do," said Zaun, who went with a classic-rock mix in the clubhouse before the finale of a critical three-game series against the Rangers at Tropicana Field on Sunday.

"I've faced all these guys a bunch, seen them, and all I do is watch baseball on TV. So I pretty much have a good grasp of everybody and what's going on. That's my job."

And a job he's doing pretty well so far.

In Zaun's seven games behind the plate, Rays starters have combined to post a 4.89 ERA, but this week, they've been almost unhittable. David Price gave up two runs in five innings with Zaun as his backstop on Tuesday, Jeff Niemann allowed only one run in 7 1/3 frames on Wednesday, and Scott Kazmir gave up three runs in 7 1/3 innings on Friday.

That's a combined 2.74 ERA by those three starters, and a 3-0 record by Tampa Bay in those games.

"He does the thinking, and all you do is execute," said Kazmir, part of a starting staff whose average age is 25. "It takes a lot of pressure off you.

"He knows that in a critical situation he wants to communicate and see what I'm thinking and what he's thinking, and we'll come up with a pitch and be on the same page. That's what a veteran does."

Before coming over to the Rays, Zaun played in 76 career games against Tampa Bay -- batting .256 with eight home runs -- and he knew its young starting staff had the makings of a great bunch -- they just needed to grow into their nasty stuff.

"Ultimately, I knew some of them were guys who were effectively wild, didn't always hit their spots but had great stuff," Zaun said.

"All these guys, they're all stuff guys. It's about harnessing that raw energy: Get them in the strike zone and keep them from being predictable."

But the 38-year-old switch-hitter didn't predict this amount of playing time when he switched uniforms earlier this month.

Zaun was in the starting lineup on Sunday -- batting seventh -- for the eighth time in 14 games since joining the Rays. Manager Joe Maddon said he wants to put Zaun in the lineup against opposing right-handers, as the switch-hitting Navarro's batting average against lefties (.277) is 29 points higher than against righties.

Zaun is not complaining.

"I was just happy to be on a contender," Zaun said. "I was like, 'OK, great, I'll go back up on a good team, and I'll get a chance to go to the postseason.' But I come here, and I'm playing a lot, and I'm able to make some contributions right away. It's been huge. I'm tickled to death."

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

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