ST. PETERSBURG — With the Rays' bench playing such an integral role in their World Series run last season, utilityman Ben Zobrist said the mentality he has taken is simple: "Be ready at all times."
But Zobrist admitted he was a little surprised when, while in the batting cage in the sixth inning Friday, he heard a few teammates yell, "Hey, you're hitting right now."
Zobrist said he had only enough time to throw on his batting gloves and helmet before facing White Sox left-hander Matt Thornton with the bases loaded and the Rays down three.
But the switch-hitter delivered, arguably, the biggest hit of the young season, a pinch-hit grand slam with two outs that lifted the Rays to a 6-5 win in front of an announced 28,927 at Tropicana Field.
The win snapped a three-game losing streak and had right-hander James Shields saying it felt a lot like 2008.
"We finally were able to get the big knocks," manager Joe Maddon said. "Of course Zobrist coming out of the batting tunnel onto the field and hitting a grand slam against that guy, who is really good; a great victory."
The six runs were one fewer than the Rays scored in the three losses combined, a product of them struggling with runners in scoring position.
Tampa Bay (5-6) still has relied too much on the long ball this season. Thirty of its 57 runs have come on homers, the highest percentage in baseball.
But starting with the homer from Zobrist, aptly nicknamed "Zorilla," the game looked similar to many from their playoff run. The bullpen came through with 12/3 scoreless innings, including another adventurous save by Troy Percival, who said he "found himself" despite giving up a hit and a walk before getting a popout to second for the final out to strand the tying run at third.
"Very sharp," Maddon said.
With that, Shields picked up an unexpected win. Shields said he didn't feel good all night, giving up five runs on seven hits, including two homers, but battled through to throw a season-high 71/3 innings and 101 pitches.
Shields (2-1) was helped by his defense.
Centerfielder B.J. Upton raced back to the warning track on a Paul Konerko blast in the fourth to make his second over-the-shoulder catch this week.
In the fifth, after Shields walked consecutive hitters with one out, first baseman Carlos Pena dived to his left to snag a Chris Getz sharp grounder and get Shields out of the jam.
"Our guys take a lot of pride in defense," Maddon said. "That is a big reason why we'll be able to get back to the playoffs this year."
As for the offense, it began to show some life. There was Evan Longoria, who doubled to extend his hitting streak to nine games in his return to the lineup after missing two games due to a death in the family. There was Peña, who continued his tear with a solo homer in the first, the fifth in his past six games to give him a majors-high six and a 10-game hitting streak.
"Obviously, it's just the beginning of the season. But we have been scuffling the last few games with the bats a little bit," Zobrist said. "So it was nice to come a little bit awake there."