On April 22, Ben Zobrist went 0-for-5 in Tampa Bay's 11-inning loss to the Blue Jays, dropping his average to .183. The Rays were struggling at 9-11, Evan Longoria was out with an injury, Manny Ramirez had been suspended for a positive drug test and Felipe Lopez was hitting cleanup. The little team that could was looking more like the team that couldn't hit.
On April 23, Zobrist batted in the cleanup spot and hit a big three-run homer in Tampa's 6-4 victory in Toronto. The next night, Zobrist's two-run homer off Ricky Romero accounted for the only two runs in a 2-0 victory. On April 27, after a day off and a rainout in Minnesota, Zobrist tripled in two runs and added a sac fly in an 8-2 victory over the Twins.
That set the stage for my selection of the top single-game performance of the 2011 season. OK, I admit ... I cheated slightly, as you'll see.
On April 28, in the top of the first inning, Zobrist singled in two runs off Minnesota's Nick Blackburn. In the sixth inning, he blasted a three-run home run to right field off Jim Hoey. In the seventh, Zobrist moved over to the right-side of the plate and drilled a two-run double to deep left field. In the ninth, he hit another two-run double, capping an eight-RBI game.
But Zobrist wasn't done. In the second game of the doubleheader, he went 3-for-4 with a double and a two-run home run. All told, he went 7-for-10 with three doubles, two home runs and 10 RBIs in the doubleheader, joining Jim Bottomley (1929 Cardinals), Pete Fox (1935 Tigers) and Nate Colbert (1972 Padres) as the only players with at least seven hits and 10 RBIs in a single day.
"I really had no idea what was happening," Zobrist said after the second game. "I just was kind of in the zone. Just trying not to think about it too much. I just felt real comfortable, obviously, in the box. The ball was big. I saw the ball big today and put good swings on it. I felt like when I swung the bat, good things were going to happen every time."
The outburst capped an amazing five-game stretch for Zobrist in which he hit four home runs and drove in 18 runs. The Rays won all five games, a key point in their season as they climbed over .500 after starting the season with six consecutive losses.
Zobrist has been one of baseball's underrated stars the past three seasons, a versatile player who excels defensively at second base or right field. He was one of only 16 players in the majors in 2011 with at least 90 RBIs and 90 runs scored. He ranked tied for 10th in the majors in extra-base hits. He might not be widely recognized as a star, but one day he shined brightest.
Chris Carpenter, Cardinals: For his brilliant three-hit, 1-0 shutout against Roy Halladay and the Phillies in Game 5 of the division series. Carpenter only struck out three but threw 110 pitches in the only complete game of the 2011 postseason.
Albert Pujols, Cardinals: For his three home runs and five hits in Game 3 of the World Series, matching Babe Ruth (twice) and Reggie Jackson as the only players with three homers in a World Series game.
Chris Capuano, Mets: For the most dominant start of the season. On Aug. 26, Capuano pitched a two-hit shutout with no walks and 13 strikeouts against the Braves, resulting in a Game Score of 96. Game Score gives points for outs and strikeouts but subtracts for hits, runs and walks allowed. Three pitchers scored a 94: Ervin Santana (his no-hitter in which he walked one but also allowed a run), Zach Stewart (a one-hit, nine-strikeout game) and Justin Verlander (for a two-hit, one-walk, 12-strikeout game; his no-hitter, in which he struck out just four, scored a 90).
Brent Lillibridge, White Sox: For his back-to-back, game-saving, spectacular catches in the ninth inning on April 26 (click here for video). With the Sox leading the Yankees 3-2, Lillibridge entered late in the game, and with two runners on and one out in the bottom of the ninth, he raced back to the wall in right field to rob Alex Rodriguez of a game-winning hit. Robinson Cano then hit a lower liner to right that Lillibridge snared with a diving catch. Mark Simon reported at the time that of 61 balls hit in that area to that point in the season, only three had been caught.