Rays secure first winning season
Zobrist hits first career grand slam in commanding win
ST. PETERSBURG -- After a decade of unrealized hopes in Tampa Bay, it was only fitting that the game that secured the Rays' first winning season in franchise history would be decided by the bats swung by a pair of guys called Zorilla and Big Brown.
Thanks to the mashing by the lumber of Ben Zobrist and Cliff Floyd, Friday night's resounding 14-3 win over the Orioles preserved a 4 1/2-game cushion over the rest of the American League East.
"It's amazing compared to the last couple years," Zobrist said of the 82nd win. "It's such positive momentum going into September, and everyone's just looking forward to each and every game."
Starting in place of regular shortstop Jason Bartlett, Zobrist made good on the nickname coined by Rays manager Joe Maddon, as the utility man blasted his first career grand slam amidst a seven-run fourth inning. Zobrist hit the first pitch from reliever Fernando Cabrera, who had previously issued an intentional walk to Eric Hinske to load the bases. Zobrist's four RBIs in the game set a career high.
"I'm just glad to be called something by the manager," Zobrist said of the nickname. The infielder has bounced back and forth from Triple-A this season, and like most of the Rays' bench players, he has surpassed nearly everyone's expectations.
"They want me to a part of this team and I am a part of this team," Zobrist said. "And I think everybody in this locker room feels that way."
The Rays' offensive onslaught came early against O's starter Jeremy Guthrie. No bat was as responsible for Guthrie's struggles as Floyd, who reached base all three times he faced the right-hander, ending the game 3-for-4 with five RBIs.
The powerful Rays designated hitter laced a double into right field to score B.J. Upton in the first inning. Floyd doubled again to score two runs and send Guthrie packing before the starter could register an out in the fourth inning.
When the dust finally settled, the Rays' double-digit score was their most runs at home since Sept. 5, 2007. Gabe Gross followed Zobrist's grand slam with a solo shot in the ensuing at-bat and Shawn Riggans went yard in the eighth inning to add more powerful evidence of the club's increasingly dominant bench play.
"Everyone has really stepped up," starter Scott Kazmir said. "You can't ask for anything more. And we didn't have to go out and get anybody. We had it all right here."
Lost in the firestorm was Kazmir, who tossed 5 1/3 scoreless innings, scattering three hits and striking out six. With the win, all five of the Rays' starters have crossed the 10-win threshold this season.
"I really thought he got into a nice rhythm," Maddon said. "Everybody wants him to pitch deeper in the game, which he shall, but you look at his numbers and they're very good."
Funny, the Rays' numbers aren't too shabby either.
The club has now eclipsed the 50-win mark at home. Tampa Bay is 31 games over .500 and hasn't lost a series since the All-Star break.
"I think 50 wins at home -- that's amazing," Kazmir said. "It's almost the amount we had [in total] last year."
But as elated as the Rays may be to put the franchise's darker days to rest, they are far from satisfied.
"We've been trying to break through a lot of barriers this year," Maddon said. "Our eyes have been on the prize. Hopefully these [past] expectations are buried and we can concentrate on the postseason."
Added Kazmir: "It still feels like we've got something to prove."
And given the team has managed to win in the wake of injuries to Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford and Troy Percival, perhaps it's time for the rest of the league to start paying attention to the Rays' playoff plans.
Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.