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Ben Zobrist homer keys seven-run sixth as Tampa Bay Rays top Washington Nationals

ST. PETERSBURG — Utilityman Ben Zobrist said he would love to play on an everyday basis, no matter the position.

And if he keeps hitting like this, there's a good chance he could be an intriguing option as a more-than-just-temporary fill-in at second base.

Zobrist continued his improbable power surge Saturday night, coming through in the clutch again with a go-ahead three-run homer in the sixth inning to spark an 8-3 victory over the worst-in-the-majors Nationals.

Zobrist, starting his 12th straight game at second base (with Akinori Iwamura's season over due to a torn left ACL), has responded by hitting five homers in his past 11 and boasts 11 tying or go-ahead RBIs this season, tying Evan Longoria for the team lead. Zobrist has a career-high 13 homers, with only Mark Teixeira (20) having more among major-league switch-hitters.

Zobrist "has been unconscious," rightfielder Gabe Gross said. "Nobody push him or wake him up or do anything like that. He's just been unbelievable for us. I don't know if there's been too many times when he's been up where we've needed the big hit and he hasn't come through. He's not only come up with the big hit, but usually a big home run. He's been a catalyst for us, no doubt."

The Rays (33-31) moved two games over .500 for the first time this season, matched a season-high four-game winning streak and clinched their fourth consecutive winning homestand before 30,856 at Tropicana Field.

And while Zobrist's blast was huge, there were several other key moments that have the Rays feeling good about possibly getting on a roll. There was Lon­goria, who entered on a 1-for-22 skid, coming through with his first multihit game since May 29th. His first hit was a two-strike single to left-center in the sixth.

Then, recently surging Carlos Peña followed with a smart baseball play, beating the Nationals' shift with a crafty bunt single down the third-base line, setting the stage for Zobrist. Peña may have hit a 453-foot homer in the fourth (the longest homer at the Trop this season), but the bunt was equally as impressive — and key.

"That's not easy to do, for me, anyway," Peña said. "It was just the right play."

Zobrist's three-run blast came on the first pitch, sparking a seven-run rally that also included a two-run homer by Gross.

That was more than enough for right-hander Andy Sonnanstine, who had his second straight efficient outing, giving up three earned runs in 71/3 innings. Sonnanstine said he was aggressive and threw more quality pitches, including getting out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the third with just one run.

"He's a survivor," manager Joe Maddon said. "And I kind of dig those guys that work their way through some tough moments."

And Maddon has dug putting Zobrist in the lineup each day, enjoying the protection he gives the cleanup hitter from the fifth spot. Zobrist entered Saturday's game with a .671 slugging percentage, which would have led the American League if he had six more plate appearances.

"It's far and above what I thought was going to happen this year," Zobrist said. "I'm just feeling great about how things have gone so far, and I just feel grateful for the opportunity I have been given."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com.

Rays 8

Nationals 3

Ben Zobrist homer keys seven-run sixth as Tampa Bay Rays top Washington Nationals 06/14/09 [Last modified: Sunday, June 14, 2009 9:02am]
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