10/22/08 7:50 PM ET
Zobrist starting for Rays vs. Hamels
Switch-hitter gets Game 1 call in right over Baldelli; Aybar to DH
By Bill Chastain / MLB.com
Given Philadelphia's southpaw starter, Maddon penciled switch-hitter Willy Aybar in the designated hitter's role and opted to give utility man Ben Zobrist his first career postseason start in right field.
Maddon inserted Zobrist -- who has never faced Hamels -- instead of right-handed-hitting Rocco Baldelli, who is 0-for-2 off the Phillies lefty. Zobrist, a switch-hitter, pinch-hit in Games 4 and 6 of the American League Championship Series and is 0-for-4 this postseason. He has appeared in three games -- all in the ALCS -- playing right field in Games 2 and 6 and shortstop in Game 4.
"We just felt like [Aybar] and [Zobrist] matched up well today," Maddon said. "And tomorrow you'll see Rocco in right and [Cliff] Floyd at DH."
Maddon didn't care to break down the whole rationale for the specifics of why Zobrist and Aybar were starting.
|Game 1 lineup|
|1. Akinori Iwamura||2B|
|2. B.J. Upton||CF|
|3. Carlos Pena||1B|
|4. Evan Longoria||3B|
|5. Carl Crawford||LF|
|6. Willy Aybar||DH|
|7. Dioner Navarro||C|
|8. Ben Zobrist||RF|
|9. Jason Bartlett||SS|
The rest of Wednesday night's lineup had the Rays' everyday players in their regular batting spots, with Aybar batting sixth and Zobrist batting in the eighth spot. Carl Crawford was penciled in to bat fifth, a spot he has performed well in throughout the postseason.
Crawford is 2-for-3 with a double off Hamels and joins Aybar (who is 1-for-3) as the only two Rays starters who have faced Hamels, the NLCS MVP.
Maddon said he is comfortable with Zobrist playing a position where he has little experience.
"That was part of that long discussion [during a coaches meeting] yesterday morning," Maddon said. "And everybody was very confident and felt very good about it. I've been talking to [Zobrist] and throwing it in his ear. He knew this was a possibility, and I said, 'Keep getting your work in the pregame every day.' He's been taking fly balls all over the place."
For Zobrist the assignment might be the crowning achievement in his baseball epiphany. He began the 2007 season as the Rays' starting shortstop and lost the job when his lack of hitting began to affect his play in the field; subsequently he was sent to Triple-A Durham. Zobrist came back strong in 2008, finishing the year with a .253 average, 12 home runs and 30 RBIs.
The home runs caught everybody off guard and even earned him co-AL Player of the Week honors the final week of the season. He attributed the change to his overcoming his fear of not succeeding, which also saw him discard his contact style of hitting for a more aggressive approach. In the last month of the season, he hit .321 with five home runs and 12 RBIs in 20 games.
"I felt like the development coming up the last month or so skyrocketed my confidence," Zobrist said. "I'm feeling like I should be in there and I can get the job done at any time. So, I've been thankful for the opportunities I've gotten so far and hopefully tonight, get a few bats in a row and see what I can do with a few bats in a row."
Had Zobrist not evolved, Maddon said he would not be in the starting lineup for Game 1.
"He's transformed himself to a real good Major League player," Maddon said. "Where you can put him at a bunch of different positions and feel really good about it."
Maddon pointed out that one factor in having Zobrist start is that he will likely finish the game as well since he is the team's backup middle infielder.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.