Zobrist's unlikely homer snaps skid
Shortstop hits two-run blast in seventh to put Rays in first place
ST. PETERSBURG -- Everything feels better in 72 degrees -- particularly Rays baseball.
Carrying the weight of a seven-game losing streak on their shoulders, the Rays returned to Tropicana Field's controlled climate on Friday night, where they rekindled the spark that ignited the best first half in franchise history with a 2-1 win over the Blue Jays in front of a crowd of 23,706.
The win moved the Rays to 56-39 on the season and, coupled with a Boston loss, they reclaimed the top spot in the American League East. Tampa Bay is also 37-14 at home.
"There's definitely a comfort about [playing at Tropicana Field]," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I can't deny it. That's one of the points I tried to make to the group [on Thursday]. We somehow need to arrive at the point where we go on the road and gain a similar kind of feeling -- where we maintain our composure, and we play well late in the game and we beat good teams. And that's the next step."
The Rays had to work to get anything going against A.J. Burnett, who brought his "A" game to his 21st start of the season.
The right-hander posted six scoreless innings before Eric Hinske worked a two-out walk in the seventh to bring up Ben Zobrist.
Zobrist has struggled while filling in for injured shortstop Jason Bartlett, but not on Friday night. Swinging at Burnett's first pitch, Zobrist lowered the barrel of his bat and rode the ball down the right-field line and into the stands for his fourth home run of the season and a 2-1 Rays lead.
"[It] felt great," Zobrist said. "[Burnett] was pitching a great game tonight; even though the zone was a little tight, he was real hard to hit. I was just fortunate to get that fastball across the plate and be able to put a good swing on it."
But there was still a lot of baseball left before the Rays earned their way back into the winner's circle.
Credit James Shields for giving the Rays a quality start, allowing only a solo home run by Adam Lind in seven innings while going toe-to-toe with Burnett.
"[Burnett's a] great man, he's on point all game and he made one bad pitch -- the home run -- and fortunately it went our way," Shields said. "I just tried to battle ... We are the type of team where, if you keep it close, we are going to come back."
Once Zobrist gave the Rays the lead, J.P. Howell came on to pitch the eighth.
The dependable left-hander quickly got Lind to hit a ground ball to Zobrist, but the shortstop threw wild to first to put the leadoff runner on second base. Joe Inglett's sacrifice bunt moved Lind to third for Marco Scutaro, who grounded to first baseman Carlos Pena. Pena checked Lind at third and touched the bag for the second out.
Then the right-handed-hitting Alex Rios stepped to the plate, and Rays manager Joe Maddon countered by bringing in right-hander Grant Balfour. And Balfour did what he does best, blowing strike three past Rios to end the threat.
Balfour then retired the Blue Jays in order in the ninth -- striking out two more in the process -- to preserve the Rays' win and earn his fourth save of the season.
"I'm going to get fired up there every time I go out there," Balfour said. "I don't care if it's 2-1 or 10-1, I don't want to give up a run. And I want to go out there and win a ballgame. I get pretty fired up and I pretty much talk to myself and fire myself up and say some things I shouldn't say here. And it works for me."
Nobody felt more grateful for the bullpen's performance than Zobrist.
"What a team win the way the pitchers picked me up after my error," Zobrist said. "Howell and Balfour, they closed it out and Shields just hung in there all night. It's been tough because we haven't been giving him a lot of run support, but he just hung right in there and got himself a win."
There was a sense of relief in the Rays' clubhouse after Tampa Bay stopped its losing streak at seven.
"I think it was important to get off on the right foot to start the second half," Zobrist said. "I think the confidence is up right now. After a win like that, you feel pretty good."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.