ST. PETERSBURG — Officially, Ben Zobrist didn't know. But realistically, he knew. As long as shortstop Jason Bartlett didn't trip, fall or otherwise re-injure his right knee and delay his return from the disabled list, Zobrist was going to be sent back to Triple-A Durham after Wednesday's game.
So he told his wife to hold off on the plane ticket from their home in Nashville and his parents not to make the drive from their native Illinois to the Rays' next stop in Kansas City, put all thoughts of the pending demotion out of his head and delivered a stirring farewell.
Zobrist homered to put the Rays ahead in the fifth inning, then singled in what became the decisive run in the seventh as Tampa Bay beat the A's 4-3, maintaining its hold on first place at the 100-game mark of the season.
"I didn't know, but I knew it was a good possibility," Zobrist said. "I understand. I know that's the way that it is. I'm glad that I got a chance to help the team out again today, and I'm glad that I could kind of leave on a good note going back down. Hopefully, I'll be back up here soon."
Zobrist's homer came on the first pitch after a two-run blast by Jonny Gomes, who also could be departing if the Rays make a long-discussed trade for a right-handed-hitting outfielder. James Shields provided a strong start, overcoming back-to-back homers by the A's in the second to work into the ninth, and Troy Percvial got the final two outs for his first save since his late June hamstring injury, and 20th of the season.
The Rays (59-41) have won four of six since the All-Star break, and head out for a week on the road saying they've regained whatever they lost during their seven-game skid.
"It's behind us," Shields said. "That break couldn't have come at a better time."
Zobrist knew he was on somewhat borrowed time, and though he had some big hits (including five homers in his last 16 games), his at-times shaky defense only magnified Bartlett's absence, as the Rays went 7-9 without him.
Once manager Joe Maddon came away from a Wednesday morning talk with Bartlett convinced he could resume playing every day starting tonight in Kansas City, he knew he would have another conversation after the game.
It just happened to be with the guy — who he is now calling "Zo-rilla" — who had a huge hand in the win.
"That's just how the game works. Fortunately he did what he did, and then he goes back," Maddon said. "He understands what's going on. I wanted him to understand how much we recognize what he's done for us here, and that he's definitely going to be back. We tried to emphasize to him the different areas we wanted him to work on defensively, and please don't mess with your swing at all."
Zobrist, who also homered in his last game before being sent down in June, said the good game softened the bad news.
"It's a little bit easier probably because I left on a good note," he said. "Sometimes if you do bad the game before you go down you might feel like that had something to do with it. … It wasn't like they don't think I can play up here, it's just a matter of how our roster is nowadays. … Hopefully I can hit a home run and stay up the next time."
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.