ST. PETERSBURG — Veteran catcher Gregg Zaun tried to set the tone for Sunday's day game hours before the first pitch, cranking up an eclectic mix of Lynyrd Skynyrd and old-school rap in the clubhouse to energize the Rays and change their "day-game attitude."
Then Zaun backed up his motivational music with his bat, delivering a pinch-hit grand slam with two outs in the eighth inning to lift the Rays to a 5-2 victory over the Blue Jays in front of 24,625 at Tropicana Field.
Zaun, 38, acquired from the Orioles less than two weeks ago, said teammates reminded him before the game of a grand slam he hit with the Jays to beat the Rays last season and asked him, "Why don't you do that stuff for us?"
"All they had to do was ask," Zaun said. "I hope they don't want to ask me for that every day. Those are few and far between."
So were Rays clutch hits Sunday. Zaun's slam was their only hit in 11 at-bats with runners in scoring position. But in ripping a 3-and-2 pitch off former teammate Brandon League into the rightfield seats, Zaun gave the Rays a much-needed series victory and pulled them to within 3?1/2 games of the wild-card spot. He also helped them end a day-game slump: They'd lost four of their previous five matinees, including three on Sundays.
"We needed to get back on track," manager Joe Maddon said. "We know that we can. We know that we're going to. We know that we're going to get into the playoffs again this year. We know that. We just have to go out on a consistent basis and play that kind of game. If it gets tight late, we've got to figure out a way to win it somehow."
The Rays (63-54) used the different-hero-every-night model to get to the World Series last season. Sunday's hero was a forever-young catcher who says he always thought he'd be a rock star if he didn't play baseball.
"That's what we've been missing all year: that clutch hit in the last inning," starting pitcher Matt Garza said. "Whoever knew it would come from one of our catchers? But shoot, I'll take it."
Garza battled his way out of jams in his five-inning, 103-pitch performance. "I made pitches when I had to," he said. The bullpen picked him up with four strong innings, giving up just one run.
Carl Crawford got the Rays started with an RBI double in the third, and the Rays made some good defensive plays, including a throw by B.J. Upton that kept a runner on third base in the third and another that nearly got Aaron Hill at home in the fifth.
The Rays also showed their fight in loading the bases in the eighth. Gabe Gross struck out in a 10-pitch battle before Zaun's at-bat, which the catcher said "seemed like it took forever" and ended with him waiting for a fastball.
"I think everyone in the whole stadium knew what I was going to throw," League said. "I just left it in the middle of the zone, and he did what he did with it."
Zaun said he desperately wants to get back to the playoffs for the first time in a decade and will do anything to contribute. Reliever J.P. Howell said Zaun blaring his music set the tone.
"It was probably one of the most fun day games I've had in a while," Howell said. "Before, you come in kind of dreading it. Not today."
Though Zaun is one of the newest Rays, he hasn't been shy about showing his personality, coming in "like a bull in a china shop." The Rays don't mind. Crawford said he hopes Zaun has a "few more tricks up his sleeve."
"Whatever I can do; I want to be playing in October," Zaun said. "If that means I DJ for two months, that means I'll DJ."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.