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Ben Zobrist fitting in as Royals prepare for playoffs

CHICAGO - Sometimes it takes temporary blindness to see the light, and so it was with Ben Zobrist's assimilation into the Kansas City Royals.

The two home runs Zobrist hit on Aug. 1, in his third game with his new club, figured to be the bonding moment he was looking for. But that was only the start. The baptism would follow.

When Royals players gathered in the clubhouse following the Zobrist-fueled 7-6 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays, the new guy was anointed with player-of-the-game honors. It was a postgame celebration similar to what Zobrist remembered from his days with the Tampa Bay Rays, but this one was different enough to catch him off guard.

"They wanted me to turn on some light and then they threw a bunch of water that went right into my eyes, literally like burned my eyes out," Zobrist said. "So that was kind of the welcome-to-the-club introduction that I got. It's fun. This team has a lot of fun celebrating wins."

As the Royals continued to celebrate more victories, Zobrist emerged as the key trade-deadline acquisition, proving to be far more valuable than starting pitcher Johnny Cueto, who was expected to be the bigger difference-maker.

With Zobrist, the Royals had exactly what they needed: a versatile defender that provided a veteran presence in the clubhouse and at the plate. He not only filled in for an injured Alex Gordon in left field, but he has also recently moved to second base, the position he's actually played the most in his 10-year career.

What the Royals could not have been expecting was the power Zobrist would provide. He hit 27 home runs with the Rays in 2009 and 20 as recently as 2012, but with his long-ball prowess on the wane in recent seasons, the seven he has hit over two months with the Royals have been a pleasant surprise.

"We expected him to be a high on-base guy and a guy that can spray the ball to all fields from both sides of the plate and really help us set the table, if you will, for scoring runs," manager Ned Yost said. "But he's produced a lot of runs with his bat, too. So he's been an excellent addition for us."

With so much time in the league, Zobrist knew that the key with a new team was to just be himself. It didn't hurt that he had recent experience with through the process of adjusting to a new team: He'd done it earlier this year, when he was traded from the Rays to the Oakland Athletics during the offseason.

Two trades in one calendar year isn't a ballplayer's ideal scenario, but Zobrist has no complaints about how it all unfolded.

"I'm really thankful," he said. "I probably wouldn't have been put in a better situation as far as needs of the team, the situation the team was in and just being a layup to getting into the playoffs, pretty much.

"Now the challenge is what we're really here for, and that's to win in the playoffs. We have to start playing better baseball than we have in the last few weeks. That is why, Johnny and myself and some of these other guys that were brought in late, were brought in here for."

The Royals have played a lackluster brand of baseball since Sept. 4, going 8-16, and they are also dealing with the reality that closer Greg Holland is out of the season with an elbow injury. Over the past month, they have also lost their grasp on the best record in the American league, slipping behind the Blue Jays.

Last season, the Royals pushed their way into the playoffs backed by youthful energy, bold baserunning, defense and, above all, a lockdown bullpen. As October arrives this year, they still have the pieces to be a World Series threat, even without Holland, but now they face the challenge of regaining last year's momentum.

"You just go through highs and lows as an individual payer and as a team," said Zobrist, who has been in a lull himself, batting just .152 (5-for-33) over his last eight games. "You just want the highs to start once the playoffs start. That's the thing, it really doesn't matter how well you're playing at the end of the year if you're not playing well in the playoffs, so I think this team relishes that experience. They proved that last year, they enjoy that, and I'm looking forward to seeing us really turn it on as the bright lights come on."

Zobrist might not have been a part of the Royals club that pushed into the World Series last year, but that 2014 run by his new teammates looked an awful lot like a similar run that he was a part of. In 2008, Zobrist was on a team of upstarts in Tampa Bay that reached the World Series.

"We expected him to be a high on-base guy and a guy that can spray the ball to all fields from both sides of the plate and really help us set the table, if you will, for scoring runs. But he's produced a lot of runs with his bat, too. So he's been an excellent addition for us." Royals manager Ned Yost on Ben Zobrist's impact in Kansas City

In fact, Zobrist has 21 games of playoff experience over four seasons, just one more element that makes him a solid fit with his new team.

"Ben is a veteran guy and has been around the team a long time, and obviously a lot of us have crossed paths with him and played against him a lot," Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer said. "It's one of those things where you knew what you were going to get out of him, he's a solid player, but he's really done a great job for us, hit a lot of big home runs and really sparked up a lot of rallies. He's done a great job and has been a big addition for us."

Not to be ignored is how well Zobrist's personality has meshed with those of the young players the Royals already had. Who doesn't appreciate a guy that can take a shot of water to the eyes and then keep on producing for you?

The Royals pride themselves on being a room full of characters that know how to get down to business but don't forget to mix in some pleasure. So how key is it to have a locker room full of good guys?

"It's not the most important thing in this game because there have been teams that have won and fought each other in the clubhouse, but just the fact that this team really gets along, it really makes everything off the field that much more enjoyable," Zobrist said. "It just makes you more comfortable on the field. That said, it's not about how comfortable you feel, it's about execution. I think the team understands that as well, and there is a toughness and moxie that this team has too."

Now there isn't a thing Zobrist isn't ready for, including the postgame victory celebrations, something the Royals hope to do as many as 11 times once the postseason begins.

"They have really embraced the loose atmosphere in the clubhouse," Zobrist said. "I think the coaching staff here, as well, is good at separating when it's business time and when you can goof around a little bit. So that is something that as a more veteran-type player now, it's important that the guys understand the businesslike approach that we still have to take. But you can still have fun while doing that."