Ben Zobrist has done so much in so many ways for the Rays this season, Joe Maddon figured the least he could do is return the favor — and at the same time better his chances of extending the American League's All-Star Game unbeaten streak to 13.
Maddon, the AL manager for the July 14 game, named Zobrist, the superb super-utility man, to the All-Star squad, joining three Tampa Bay teammates who were voted in.
Evan Longoria was the fans' choice at third base and will be the first Ray to start an All-Star Game; shortstop Jason Bartlett and leftfielder Carl Crawford were elected by their colleagues as reserves. A fifth Ray could join them as Carlos Peña is on the five-man online ballot for the last spot.
Zobrist's rise from reserve to offensive force — 16 homers and an AL-best 1.015 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) — is becoming a national story, with TBS All-Star analyst Dennis Eckersley calling him "the biggest surprise of the year, no doubt."
Maddon told Zobrist on Saturday night what he told the media after Sunday's announcement: He deserved the honor.
"I'm looking at everybody else that was available or eligible, and I just felt that Zobrist's numbers stacked up really well," Maddon said in Arlington, Texas. "There's a form of nepotism involved, and you don't want to be the anti-nepotist, if that's a word. I don't want to exclude anybody just because they're with us, and because of that I'm trying to be fair to everybody else and not fair to our own people."
As if Maddon's explanation and the honor in his first full big-league season weren't good enough, Zobrist, 28, gets to play in St. Louis, where he'd go as a kid from his hometown in Eureka, Ill., to watch games.
"It's going to be extremely special," Zobrist said. "I was just telling my dad on the phone that if I never get to play in any other All-Star Game, this would have been the one I would have wanted to play in."
Longoria, a fans choice last year, had been among the AL's leading vote-getters throughout the balloting, beating Alex Rodriguez by nearly 2 million votes at third base and finishing third overall with 4,315,210, behind the Yankees' Derek Jeter (4,851,889) and the Twins' Joe Mauer (4,335,739).
"I think it shows a lot about the steps that the team has taken, as far as the fans' eye," Longoria said. "Obviously with the caliber of third basemen there are in the American League, to be the leading vote-getter is just a tremendous honor."
Bartlett, one of the AL's top hitters despite missing three weeks, makes his first All-Star appearance after finishing second on both ballots.
"It's always been a dream," he said. "I texted my brother (Jeff) last night, 'Who would have thought that I would go from playing Wiffle ball in the front yard to being a major league all-star.' It really didn't hit me until I laid in bed last night. I realized that not too many people get this opportunity."
Crawford, having perhaps his best season, was equally excited to make a third appearance. "It never gets old," he said.
Maddon said he was "in agreement" with the eight starters voted by the fans and the eight reserves and eight pitchers selected by the players. He was left with eight spots to fill, with three going to players from teams not otherwise represented — Baltimore's Adam Jones, Chicago's Mark Buehrle, Oakland's Andrew Bailey.
Relieved of a potentially tough decision with Edwin Jackson — the pitcher the Rays traded to Detroit who was voted in by the players — Maddon filled out his 13-man staff by picking Seattle's Felix Hernandez, Boston's Tim Wakefield (making his first All-Star appearance at age 42) and Los Angeles' Brian Fuentes (the AL saves leader) over Rays reliever J.P. Howell, who could be added if there is an injury.
Maddon used the remaining slots for players he thought could help late to win a game that decides homefield advantage for the World Series, picking Kevin Youkilis as the sixth Red Sox on the team and Zobrist.
"I felt as though he earned it," Maddon said, "and his versatility also spoke to this game. ... As the game is in progress, there's so many things he can do."
Times staff writer Joe Smith contributed to this report.