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Better mechanics, health have Tampa Bay Rays' Ben Zobrist back to 2009 form

ST. PETERSBURG — The obvious inclination is to explore what Ben Zobrist changed at the plate, leading to markedly increased production that stands out as one of the team's few offensive success stories.

But the answer is somewhat of a contradiction, because the reality is that the biggest difference has been his ability to keep things the same from game to game and at-bat to at-bat.

"Staying with a consistent approach mechanically as far as my swing goes instead of trying to change my mechanics up," Zobrist explained. "I'm not changing major stuff like I was."

The guy manager Joe Maddon referred to this spring as being "The Man of 1,000 Stances" has cut way down on his repertoire — "It's in the 50's now, maybe less than that," Maddon cracked — and the improvement has been exponential.

Zobrist got to the end of July leading the majors with 34 doubles (already six past his career high) and co-leading the American League with 53 extra-base hits, sharing with Boston's Adrian Gonzalez.

Plus, riding an 11-game hitting streak to wrap up an overall hot month, he has his average up to a solid .282 and leads the team with 61 RBIs.

"He's been our most consistent offensive player," Maddon said. "You want to get him up there in the crucial moments."

That sounds similar to 2009, when he hit .297 with 28 homers and 91 RBIs, racked up 62 extra-base hits, was third in the league with a .948 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage), made the All-Star team, won the Rays MVP award and finished eighth in the AL MVP voting.

And not at all like 2010, when he dropped off to .238, had only 10 homers and 40 extra-base hits, compiled a .699 OPS and would have captained the All-Disappointment team.

The mechanical shift, which included some more technical stuff such as the positioning of the bat head and the synching of his hands and body, was part of the dropoff. There were other reasons as well.

Zobrist is candid enough to acknowledge "there was a little bit" of pressure that he put on himself, at least initially, after the late-April announcement of a long-term contract that could pay him almost $30 million over six years.

And he is reluctant to admit just how much he was bothered by back and neck issues that not only restricted his swing but limited the work he could do to improve before games.

Also, like other slumping hitters, he started expanding his strike zone and chasing pitches he couldn't hit, and certainly couldn't drive.

"I was just a click off last year," Zobrist said. "And that one click really makes a big difference for me when it comes to my end result."

So now this year, his stance is simplified, his plate discipline restored and his health improved, allowing to him to spend quality time in the cages with hitting coach Derek Shelton. Maddon said it's an approach very much like he saw in 2009.

The result is comfortably familiar. "It feels," Zobrist said, "more like me as a hitter."

And — in addition to his usual top-notch play at both second base and in rightfield — he feels much better about it.

"It definitely feels good to get some results and just get back to doing the same kind of thing I was doing in 2009," Zobrist said. "I think there's a certain humility that enters into it, that you realize, 'You know what, it's not just going to come easy, just because you did it one time.' You really have to battle to continue to do it, especially in this league."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

.FAST FACTS

Party like it's 2009

Ben Zobrist seems to have bounced back to his 2009 All-Star/team MVP form:

Year Avg. HR RBIs XBH OPS

2009 .297 27 91 62 .948

2010 .238 10 75 40 .699

2011 .282 14 61 53 .875

Better mechanics, health have Tampa Bay Rays' Ben Zobrist back to 2009 form 08/01/11 [Last modified: Monday, August 1, 2011 9:39pm]
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