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Ben Zobrist might secure stability with Tampa Bay Rays

PORT CHARLOTTE — Change is nothing new for Ben Zobrist.

It's the norm.

The Rays utilityman recalls the wild past couple of years, from being the opening day shortstop in 2007 to going up and down from Triple A four times last season. There were milestones (marrying wife Julianna), career highlights (World Series starts in rightfield in Games 1 and 4) and adventures (the birth of son Zion in February).

"The whole last few years have been a whirlwind," Zobrist said. "Just kind of change after change after change. I feel like it's normal now. So if we ever stay somewhere longer than a month or a month and a half, it's going to be out of the normality right now.

"The abnormal is kind of normal for us."

Fittingly, Zobrist, 27, said everything finally feels "normal," and he might get that wish of sticking in the big leagues. And a few other changes — in positions and power at the plate — are why.

Zobrist's transformation last season into a super utilityman (playing six positions) and slugger (12 homers) could make him a key cog for the Rays.

Zobrist has played six spots this spring, and with outfielders B.J. Upton (left shoulder) and Fernando Perez (left wrist) recovering from injuries, he might be a backup plan in centerfield.

"I'm not saying he can never be a starter again because he may be with the addition of the offense," manager Joe Maddon said. "And it doesn't have to be at shortstop anymore, either. There are other places he can start now because of this experiment. So he's turned into a very interesting player."

The turning point came in late January 2008, shortly before Zobrist began juggling gloves — and roles. He said a couple of people, including Dallas Baptist University coach Dan Heefner (his brother-in-law), gave him tips on tweaking his swing.

Zobrist began to stay connected in his approach, using more of his lower half and getting down into the zone (instead of "throwing my hands down at the ball").

The results were remarkable. Despite starting the season on the disabled list (left thumb fracture) and playing just 62 big-league games, Zobrist led all major-league infielders with a home run for every 16.5 at-bats (minimum 10 homers). This from a switch-hitter who before 2008 had just three homers in 280 big-league at-bats and 19 in 1,251 minor-league at-bats.

Zobrist said he surprised even himself by homering over the centerfield wall (420 feet away) at Detroit's Comerica Park in September. Soon after, Maddon nicknamed him "Zorilla."

"His offense from last year really did a 180. He was our power bat off the bench," shortstop Jason Bartlett said. "Every time he did play, you could feel it in the dugout; he was a threat. … Usually, your utility guy doesn't have that much pop like he does. There's something special about him."

Zobrist acknowledges it was a special year, from his success to that of Julianna's (she recently released her debut Christian alternative CD, The Tree).

But the Eureka, Ill., native, son of a minister, has remained grounded, having thrived through his twists and turns.

"When you're uprooted and thrown somewhere that you are not used to," Zobrist said, "you just roll with the punches."

After all, as Zobrist found out, change can be a good thing.

FAST FACTS

Power play

Last season, Ben Zobrist led all major-league middle infielders in at-bats per home run (minimum 10 homers), topping some of the game's stars:

Player Team AB

Ben Zobrist Rays16.5

Dan Uggla Marlins16.6

Hanley Ramirez Marlins17.9

Chase UtleyPhillies18.4

Mr. Versatility

Ben Zobrist morphed into a super utilityman last season, playing six positions and starting at five over 62 games. His starts at each:

Shortstop33 Centerfield 3

Leftfield8 Rightfield 1

Second4 Third0

Source: Rays

Ben Zobrist might secure stability with Tampa Bay Rays 03/13/09 [Last modified: Friday, March 13, 2009 10:09pm]

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