OAKLAND – He has the reputation of doing a little of everything on the diamond, so perhaps Ben Zobrist’s multi-dimensional performance Wednesday should not surprise.
He singled, doubled, tripled, scored three runs and drove in three more during the A’s 16-2 stomping of the San Diego Padres. Not wanting to feel left out on defense, Zobrist even retreated back to the wall in the second inning and robbed Derek Norris with a leaping catch in left field.
You might expect this on occasion from a two-time All-Star known for being one of the majors’ most versatile players. But an early-season knee injury kept the first-year Athletic from making any real impact with his new team.
Outside of leadoff man Billy Burns, however, there’s not a more indispensable member of the A’s lineup right now than the switch-hitting Zobrist.
“We need Zob, and it seems like when he’s swinging the bat well and playing well, we tend to play a little bit better,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said.
However, one role that Zobrist wasn’t expected to fill for the A’s was that of cleanup hitter. But when Stephen Vogt and Billy Butler were both swinging frigid bats a week or so ago, Melvin plugged Zobrist in as the fourth hitter and dropped Vogt and Butler down to switch up the dynamic.
Zobrist has batted cleanup in six of the A’s past seven games, and in those six contests he’s gone 10-for-23 (.435) with 10 runs scored and six RBI. As a team, the A’s have averaged 8.33 runs with him batting cleanup.
Rather than swing the bruising bat that drives in all the runs, Zobrist has been more of a catalyst in the cleanup role, getting on base often and sparking those hitting behind him to produce. He’s hitting just .244 overall. But to see Zobrist clicking at his current rate, it shows you the impact player the A’s were missing while he was sidelined 28 games by a meniscus tear in his left knee that required surgery.
“The last few games I’ve run the bases more than I probably did the first 2½ months,” Zobrist said. “That’s a good thing. We just have a lot of potential to score a lot of runs. And hopefully I’ m just one of those guys as part of the lineup that just gets on base. If I get on base, I know there’s guys behind me that’ll hit me in.”
The cynical A’s fan would look at Zobrist’s improving health and production and say that it simply makes him a more attractive trade target should the A’s decide to sell. And it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see Zobrist (and/or other veterans) get dealt before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. He’s due to hit free agency after the season, and the Nationals, Cubs, and both New York teams reportedly have had interest.
That storyline will play out. For now, we’re seeing the kind of impact envisioned when the A’s acquired Zobrist from Tampa Bay in a deal that cost them top prospect Daniel Robertson and John Jaso as part of the return package.
Making Wednesday’s victory sweeter was a big night from Butler, who went 4-for-5 and hit a three-run homer, his first time going deep since May 16.
“That's big because I haven't had the greatest first half,” Butler said. “But these types of things turn around. It's a long season.”
“He looks like the Billy we know, the way he was swinging tonight,” Zobrist said.
And right now, Zobrist is resembling the player that made him so attractive to the A’s in the first place.