Zaun had just delivered a walk-off grand slam to complete an improbable 7-4 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays, and the 37-year-old backup -- seldom used in what's been a trying season for the veteran -- received the traditional helmet-slapping treatment after disappearing into a crowd of jumping Blue Jays.
"That's the most fun I've had in a ballpark in a long time," said Zaun, still smiling after the win.
With little left to play for except perhaps pride, the Blue Jays (75-66) took down the American League East-leading Rays en route to their seventh win in a row -- the club's longest winning streak since 2002. Tampa Bay lost this battle of wills, which featured a strong return to the rotation from Toronto's Shaun Marcum and a pair of home runs off the bat of Lyle Overbay.
There was a ninth-inning collapse with Blue Jays closer B.J. Ryan on the hill, erasing a 3-0 advantage to send the contest into extra innings. Then, there was yet another comeback by the Rays (85-55) -- this time in the top of the 13th -- to put Toronto down, 4-3, and three outs away from its first loss in seven tries.
In the end, though, there was Zaun, sending the first pitch he received from Tampa Bay's Troy Percival just over the wall in right field for an unlikely grand slam -- only the second such walk-off blast in team history. The other flew off the bat of Blue Jays great George Bell on Sept. 4, 1988.
"I've had some really, really tough battles with Troy this year already," said Zaun, who entered the game 1-for-7 in his career against the Rays' closer. "I had a couple of at-bats where I really squared a couple balls up and didn't have any luck. I didn't get all of that one, but you had to figure it was bound to even out sooner or later."
That same theory could be applied to Zaun's recent showing at the plate.
|"I've had some really, really tough battles with Troy [Percival] this year already. ... I didn't get all of that one, but you had to figure it was bound to even out sooner or later."|
|-- Gregg Zaun|
In the second inning, Zaun singled off Tampa Bay starter James Shields to end an 0-for-21 offensive skid, dating back to July 30. Relegated to a limited bench role behind starting catcher Rod Barajas, and potentially in his final season with Toronto, the playing time has been sparse for Zaun, who went 0-for-19 in the month of August.
On Saturday, after finishing 3-for-5 with his first homer since June 24, Zaun was able to laugh off his recent struggles. He joked that he also hadn't recorded a hit when Toronto wears its retro powder blue uniforms, though he's actually 1-for-15 in that attire. Against the Rays, Zaun sported his slump-busting stirrups, with the pant legs pulled high to show them off.
"Getting a hit in my first at-bat was huge for me -- it just kind of lifted it all," Zaun said. "It was the stirrups and the high pants. I hadn't broke them out at all this year. That's my go-to gear when I'm scuffling."
Behind the plate, Zaun caught a strong performance from Marcum, who was making his first appearance after a two-start stint with Triple-A Syracuse. The right-hander spun seven shutout innings, in which he struck out seven and walked three, and left in line for the win -- thanks in part to solo homers from Overbay in the second and fourth innings.
"It was nice just to go out there," Marcum said, "and throw some zeroes on the board and get past the fifth for the first time in a while. The guys swung the bats and got me some runs early, and that makes it a little easier to pitch when you've got a little bit of leeway."
Blue Jays closer B.J. Ryan wasn't able to keep his team's 3-0 lead intact, though. In the ninth inning, the left-hander hit Carlos Pena with the first pitch of the frame and then surrendered a two-run homer to Rocco Baldelli. Later in the inning, Jays second baseman Joe Inglett misplayed a line drive up the middle to allow the tying run to score from second.
With the score in a 3-3 deadlock in the bottom of the ninth, Toronto came close to avoiding extra innings. Scott Rolen collected a two-out double off Tampa Bay's Dan Wheeler and Zaun followed by slicing a pitch to the left side of the infield. The ball appeared destined for left field, and Rolen sprinted around third accordingly.
The only problem was that Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett snared the sharply-hit grounder with a spectacular dive and quickly relayed the ball to third base, catching Rolen -- and everyone else, for that matter -- off guard. Rolen got caught in a rundown and was easily tagged for the frame's final out.
Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston couldn't believe Bartlett got to the baseball.
"I think we all were surprised," Gaston said. "I thought Zaun had won it then. I was looking for the runner coming home, because you get blocked out in the dugout sometimes. Next thing I know, Rolen is scuffling trying to get back to third base."
Sprinting toward first base on the play, Zaun also thought he had delivered a game-winning hit.
"I did -- I thought, 'That's a base hit -- he's going to score easy,'" Zaun said. "Then, Bartlett came out of nowhere. That whole lineup is full of great athletes. They're all fast and they're all strong. He made a great play to save the game.
"Had things not worked out the way they did, they would've been talking about that play instead of my home run."
At that, Zaun smiled.
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less