MINNEAPOLIS - Finally healthy, Ben Zobrist is hitting the way he did during his breakout 2009 season.
Zobrist set a Tampa Bay record with eight RBI, hitting a home run and two doubles Thursday as the Rays routed the Minnesota Twins, 15-3, in the first game of a day-night doubleheader.
In the nightcap, Jeff Niemann carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning, and Zobrist went 3-for-4 with a two-run homer to give him 10 RBI for the day as Tampa Bay beat Minnesota, 6-1, for the sweep.
In Zobrist’s record-setting opener, he went 4-for-6 and scored twice. He hit an RBI single in the first inning, a three-run homer in the sixth and added two-run doubles in the seventh and ninth.
Zobrist broke the team RBI record of seven set by Carlos Peña in 2007. He’s the first player to drive in at least eight runs in a game since Toronto’s Adam Lind on Aug. 31, 2009.
“Anytime you have that many RBIs it’s because your teammates are on base for you every time,” Zobrist said. “That was what it was about today. We hit well up and down the lineup. Everybody hit and hopefully we saved a few for the second game.”
Zobrist hit .297 with 27 home runs and 91 RBI in 2009, then signed a four-year, $18 million contract. He played through a sore neck last year and his numbers dropped across the board, down to .238 with 10 homers and 75 RBI.
But Zobrist has been healthy this spring and it shows.
He’s driven in 18 runs over his last four games to take over the American League lead in RBI with 25.
“That’s hot,” Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. “Ben’s just not missing. He’s getting his opportunities and the at-bats have been working and he’s done a great job with it.”
With Zobrist leading the way, Tampa Bay has won five in a row and 13 of 15.
“Anytime you are healthy, then you can do the work you want to do to get prepared for the game,” Zobrist said. “When you’re not healthy, you can’t do that. That’s the biggest difficulty of not being completely healthy, just being able to get that work in. So, it’s been nice being able to do that this year. Especially lately, trying to make adjustments where I need to make adjustments.”
B.J. Upton had three hits and scored three times for the Rays, who matched a season high with 19 hits. Johnny Damon had three hits, including an RBI triple, to extend his hitting streak to 15 games.
Jeremy Hellickson (2-2) pitched 6 innings for the victory. Nick Blackburn (1-4) was chased in the fourth.
Tampa Bay’s hitters might be starting to catch up with their pitchers. The Rays started the day with the AL’s third-best ERA, but was last in the majors with a .228 batting average.
The Rays have outscored the Twins 23-5 through the first two games of the series. Zobrist hit his sixth home run and Casey Kotchman hit his first.
Tampa Bay has scored in the first inning of each of the five games of its road trip.
“I’ll sit in there as long as they want to hit,” Hellickson said of the long pauses in the dugout while his team scored. “I’ll just put on my jacket and sit on the bench.”
Hellickson allowed just two hits before Michael Cuddyer homered with two outs in the fourth. The rookie right-hander then retired seven of the next eight batters.
“We’re not playing with some fire,” Cuddyer said. “We’ve got to play with some fire. We’ve got to play with some emotion. Right now we’re not.
Blackburn stumbled through 3 innings. He allowed seven runs, five of which were earned, and gave up eight hits and four walks.
The walks might be the biggest concern for the Twins. Perennially among the stingiest teams in handing out walks, they’ve had control trouble all season.
“I just couldn’t throw strikes,” Blackburn said. “Everything I was throwing was going straight in the dirt. It was just one of those days. It’s not very often I have to try to convince myself to get the ball up. I couldn’t find the strike zone today.”