MINNEAPOLIS — Ben Zobrist had quite a Thursday, breaking the team record by driving in eight runs in the matinee and finishing his day-and-night's work with seven hits, including a pair of homers, and 10 RBIs, giving him 18 for his last five games and a major-league most-matching 25 for the season.
"This," Zobrist deadpanned, "must be what it's like to feel like Sam Fuld."
The Rays had reason to joke, laugh and smile after a long and rewarding day in which they won both games from the Twins, 15-3 and 6-1, continuing their run as the majors' best team since their 1-8 start, improving to 14-11.
Zobrist's record day was impressive enough as he not only broke Carlos Peña's team mark but became the first American Leaguer with that many RBIs over a five-game span since Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson in 1969.
But the Rays headed home after the 5-1 trip with all kinds of things to feel good about.
Certainly, the remarkably encouraging performance by previously struggling starter Jeff Niemann, who took a no-hitter into the seventh inning of the nightcap and picked up his first win of the season. "A huge confidence boost," Niemann said. And that after a solid start from rookie Jeremy Hellickson in the opener.
Also, the continued resurgence of their offense, as they scored 21 runs for the day, 29 for the series and 41 for the trip and, sparked by the one-two combo of Fuld and Johnny Damon, scored first in all six games.
"We really hit the ball hard and well, just good at-bats," manager Joe Maddon said. "That's about as well as we've played for three consecutive games this year."
About the only negative was that infielder Sean Rodriguez dislocated his left pinky, with his status to be determined today.
Zobrist deserved to be at the top of the list.
After knocking in three, two and three runs in his three previous games, he had a pretty good week in the day-night doubleheader.
He had a career-high four hits in the opener to drive in eight runs, breaking Peña's 2007 team mark: a one-run single, a three-run homer and a pair of two-run doubles.
Then in the nightcap, he hit a two-run homer in the second, then singled in the sixth and later scored.
"I really had no idea what was happening," Zobrist said. "I was just kind of in the zone. Try not to think about it too much. … I just felt really comfortable, obviously, in the box. The ball was big. I saw the ball big today and put good swings on it and I felt like when I swung the bat good things were going to happen every time."
Said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire: "We pitched him inside, we pitched him outside, we threw him changeups, we threw him breaking balls, he pretty much hit everything we threw up there. Every mistake we made, he killed it."
The 18 RBIs over five games are the most for any player since Sammy Sosa in 2002 for the Cubs. The 10 RBIs for the day matched Garret Anderson's production in an August 2007 game for the Angels; Mark Whiten had 13 in one day, over two games, for St. Louis in 1993.
"He's making the most of his opportunities; guys are on base and he's doing what it takes to bring them home," Damon said. "He's had a pretty big week, and hopefully this will be another guy on this team who gets player of the week, because he's been pretty amazing."
After hitting 27 homers and driving in 91 runs in an All-Star 2009 season, Zobrist dropped off dramatically last season, with only 10 homers and 75 RBIs. But in this first month of this season he already has seven homers and the 25 RBIs, which are a Rays record for April.
"The ascension of Ben," Maddon said.
In the opener, Hellickson, with nearly 100 fans making the trip from his native Iowa, pitched into the seventh for the victory. Damon (extending his streak to 15), B.J. Upton and Matt Joyce had three hits apiece as the Rays matched their season high with 19, and Casey Kotchman hit his first homer as a Ray. Joyce also made a running catch in right.
In the nightcap, Niemann look nothing like the starter who struggled through four starts (0-3, 7.08) and a lot like the one who was their most consistent for the past two seasons, allowing only a walk through the first six innings. But Minnesota's Denard Span, a Tampa native, lined a ball just over shortstop for the first hit. John Jaso homered and Kotchman had two more hits.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]