Return of Ben Zobrist a positive note for Rays’ spring

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — At one point during infield drills, Joe Maddon knew Ben Zobrist would be fine.

The Tampa Bay Rays’ manager was carrying about his pregame routine Monday morning at Charlotte Sports Park when his second baseman’s athleticism caught his eye. Zobrist was warming up as part of a five-man workout, testing his mobility after being held out of his team’s first three spring games because of a strained back.

Suddenly, Zobrist dived to his side and snagged a sharp line drive, his body flailing toward the grass and dirt like a dart. It was the kind of display Maddon and others within the Rays have come to expect from the two-time All-Star — a combination of his depth and consistency that has marked his first eight seasons in the major leagues. He’s trusted.

"I happened to look back," Maddon said later, "and he made a diving stop."

If Zobrist’s health remained in question before Monday, that worry was placed to rest on a warm and clear afternoon in southwest Florida. He hit 0 for 2 in the Rays’ 6-1 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies, but he looked mobile and comfortable in his spring’s first game action. There were no health worries afterward. There was no hesitation.

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"I felt good today," Zobrist said. "It was good to get back out there on the field and just get a little bit comfortable again and just be out there with the guys. It was fun."

Zobrist’s return to the field was welcomed. He received light work as expected, playing three innings before Cole Figueroa replaced him to start the fourth with left-hander C.J. Riefenhauser on the mound.

Though there was little concern that Zobrist’s back issue was nothing more than minor, the sight of him taking pitches in the batter’s box, gazing at hitters from his perch within the diamond and showing his range at his position was a positive sign for an infield that entered this spring with high hopes after all four American League Gold Glove Award finalists returned.

Zobrist is a calm, collected staple of that bunch. Any health concern in spring training is worth tracking — Zobrist sustained his injury Feb. 19 while lifting in the weight room here — but there was never a large amount of alarm. It’s easy to see why after Monday.

Good thing, too, because his presence in the lineup will be central to Tampa Bay’s goal to preserve its consistency. Its infield is weaker without him.

"He looked fine," Maddon said. "He moved well. He felt really good."

Like Evan Longoria, Zobrist has become a "must-see" in the Rays’ lineup of recent years, a somewhat remarkable development after he joined Tampa Bay following a June 2006 trade with the Houston Astros that sent Aubrey Huff and cash to south Texas. And like Longoria, "Zorilla" has become an ironman in his own right: Since 2009, he has played in no fewer than 151 games each season, and the past two years, he has played in a career-high 157. (By comparison, Longoria played in 133 games in 2011 and 74 in 2012.)

These developments are nothing groundbreaking. The Rays know what they have in Zobrist. In turn, Zobrist knows what he has with the Rays: a consistent home, a place where he has grown with the franchise since its moribund "Devil Rays" days, a location where he started earning $383,400 at age 26 to $7 million now as a proven 32-year-old.

"I felt great in the field, felt great at the plate," Zobrist said. "Just swings, running, making throws, anything I had to do today felt good. Positive step. I’ll just keep gaining strength like everybody else."

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That’s why the Rays will be cautious with him in the coming days. Understandably, he will skip Tampa Bay’s road games against the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday in Fort Myers, the Baltimore Orioles on Thursday in Sarasota and the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday in Dunedin.

There’s no need to rush this process faster than it needs to be pushed. After Zobrist’s play Monday, there seems to be little need for worry. The Rays were fortunate that his condition wasn’t more serious, but at the same time, they’re wise to guarantee his tweak won’t become a severe strain.

Such are the cautions of spring, a time when there are reasons to be calculated as well as optimistic. The best-laid plans can be scrambled with one unfortunate injury, an entire season wrecked with a cruel twist of nature.

For now, the Rays seem to have no reason to worry about Zobrist. Still, the threat is always present.

"Maybe a couple games behind," Zobrist said of his status. "That’s about it, and I won’t feel that way at all in another few games here. I’ll just feel like normal, so it just takes a little bit.

"At this point, I’m just starting to think about my swing and timing and getting comfortable at the plate and getting to see some pitches. So it was good to finally get out there and see some different pitches, and I’ll go from there."

That’s all the Rays want. That’s all they need to hear.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at