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Ben Zobrist, Tampa Bay Rays beat Oakland Athletics

ST. PETERSBURG — Rays utilityman Ben Zobrist has such a penchant for pinch-hit heroics, that when he comes to the plate late in a game, the energy level spikes in the stands, where manager Joe Maddon joked he is becoming a "cult figure."

The vibe has also spread to the dugout, where teammates expect Zobrist to live up to his nickname, "Zorilla."

Said B.J. Upton: "He can change a game at any time."

Zobrist did just that in Thursday's 6-5 win over the A's, coming up clutch with a tying two-run homer in the ninth. Carl Crawford capped the Rays' second walkoff win in six days with a winning single before getting mobbed by teammates, as the 14,374 at Tropicana Field gave a standing ovation.

Zobrist, 27, tied Bubba Trammel's club record set in 2000 with his third pinch-hit home run (and eighth overall) of the season.

"That's kind of the dream situation," he said.

But to teammates, such efforts from Zobrist are becoming the norm.

"When (Zobrist) comes up, we all get used to seeing him do that — we kind of expect it," Crawford said. "We know he's not going to be able to do it all the time, but we definitely feel something good is about to happen when he comes to the plate."

The Rays (21-22) needed a feel-good moment, turning what could have been an extremely deflating loss — after blowing a one-run lead and given up two runs in the ninth — into a victory to build on as they head to Miami smiling and styling in their planned all-white attire.

The Rays salvaged a split in the four-game series with the last-place A's, clinching their second straight winning homestand (5-3).

"You had it, you let it slip away and then you bring it back," Maddon said. "There is a lot of fight in our group — I love it."

Right-hander Matt Garza got the Rays started with another strong performance, giving up two runs in 62/3 innings, battling through 107 pitches (after a 120-pitch outing his previous start). He left with a 3-2 lead.

But the A's got to the bullpen, scoring one in the eighth before taking the lead in the ninth. Troy Percival had another shaky outing, walking two with one out, and Jason Giambi ripped a long fly ball to center, which Upton said he lost in the lights, that one-hopped off the wall. The runners, thinking Upton would catch it, remained, loading the bases. Joe Nelson then gave up a run-scoring single and bases-loaded walk.

The switch-hitting Zobrist knew he would pinch hit for Gabe Kapler (who had an RBI double earlier in the game) in the ninth. Maddon has praised him for "always staying ready." "At-bat-per-at-bat, of anybody on this team, (Zobrist's) are the best on a nightly basis," Maddon said.

Zobrist said he was looking for a fastball from right-handed reliever Andrew Bailey, and when he left a cutter over the plate, "Zorilla" pounded it into the rightfield seats, pumping his fist as he rounded first.

Zobrist said that before his at-bat in the ninth he hadn't taken a swing all day, either pregame or in the cage during the game.

He smiled, and said, "It only takes one."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com

Ben Zobrist, Tampa Bay Rays beat Oakland Athletics 05/21/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 22, 2009 10:11am]
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