ST. PETERSBURG -- Before the season, Joaquin Benoit didn't know if he would pitch in the Major Leagues again. Now, he's on an unexpected and untouchable streak on the mound.
Benoit has struck out the last nine batters he's faced and given up two hits and no walks in seven innings since being called up from Triple-A Durham on April 29. His strikeout streak is the longest over multiple games since Eric Gagne fanned 10 straight over four games for the Dodgers in 2003, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
"Right now, he's pitching as well as anybody out of our bullpen," Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said.
The right-handed reliever has done a particularly impressive job getting batters out with his changeup. Six of his nine straight strikeouts have come on batters swinging and missing at his devastating off-speed pitch. Benoit said he considers his changeup a fosh -- somewhat of a mix between a slider and a changeup -- and he said people call it by plenty of other names. And even though opposing batters may know it's coming on a two-strike count, they know it by another name: strike three.
"Most of the guys expect me to throw a changeup after two strikes, and it's been working," Benoit said. "They are expecting to see a changeup. They even call it in the bullpen.
"Sometimes they're right, but sometimes I go back to the fastball because some hitters expect me to throw a changeup with two strikes now."
This run of success has given the 32-year-old Benoit a much-needed confidence boost after he spent all of 2009 after undergoing surgery to repair a torn right rotator cuff. He said he is more relaxed with the Rays than he has ever been, and he has taken that newfound confidence onto the field.
"I step on the mound, and I'm going to attack hitters," Benoit said. "They're going to hit me, or I'm going to get them out."
He didn't always have that level of belief in himself, though. He spent the 2009 season in his native Dominican Republic, working out and whipping himself into better shape in hopes of getting back to the big leagues. But in February, when he tried out for the Rays in Port Charlotte, Fla., he had no idea whether or not he would even be on a Major League roster after so much time off.
Even after Benoit made the team, he faced another potential obstacle: time in the Minor Leagues with Triple-A Durham. But he waited his turn, eventually got the call-up and has been on a roll ever since.
"When you're on a run like this, whatever you do, it works. Everything is going great," Benoit said. "It's something special that you need to take advantage of."
Zobrist heating up after slow start
ST. PETERSBURG -- After a sluggish start, Ben Zobrist has come around at the plate quickly.
The switch-hitting utility man ended April with a .241 batting average, .327 on-base percentage and .356 slugging percentage -- disappointing numbers after a career year in 2009. It has been a completely different story for Zobrist at the plate this month, however, as he is batting .387 (29-for-75) in May, fifth-best in the Major Leagues, with a .449 on-base percentage and .533 slugging percentage. He has gotten on base in all but three games this month, and he drove in the game-tying run in the eighth inning in one of those three.
"I thought he was pressing. I thought he was getting pitched at differently as well," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "He had a really good last year that garnered some MVP votes, made the All-Star team. So they've been coming after him differently. I think he's finally made the adjustments. He's not expanding his strike zone."
In his past 28 plate appearances heading into Monday, Zobrist was 13-for-21 with six walks, two doubles, two home runs, a sacrifice fly, two stolen bases and seven RBIs. The two home runs have come in the last four games, as he hit his first of the year on the road against the Yankees on Thursday.
Over the last six games alone, Zobrist raised his on-base percentage from .338 to .385, his slugging percentage from .360 to .438 and his batting average from .266 to .309.
Maddon said the biggest problem for Zobrist at the beginning of the year was his expanded strike zone, so his recent success hasn't come as a shock at all.
"I was surprised, more than anything, that he was swinging at pitches that he normally does not," Maddon said. "He's always been that guy. He's always been an organized strike zone guy.
"Zo had gotten away from it, he's gotten back to it. I'd like to think he's going to maintain it for the rest of the season. If he does, his numbers are going to come up dramatically."
Shoppach, Joyce making progress
ST. PETERSBURG -- Although the Rays received some bad news on the injury front last week when reliever J.P. Howell had season-ending shoulder surgery, manager Joe Maddon said Monday that catcher Kelly Shoppach and outfielder Matt Joyce are doing well in their respective rehabs.
Shoppach, who played in four games for Tampa Bay this season before injuring his knee against the Yankees on April 10, looked good hitting and catching before Monday night's game, Maddon said. He also caught the first pitch from Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman before Monday night's game.
Shoppach had arthroscopic surgery on April 19 to repair his meniscus and started rehab on April 25, and he could start a rehab assignment in Port Charlotte, Fla., as soon as this weekend or the beginning of next week.
"In my mind's eye, it would be important that he'll be able to catch two days in a row, nine innings at the conclusion of that assignment, so that he would be able to do that when he comes back here," Maddon said.
Catcher John Jaso has been impressive since being called up from Triple-A Durham to replace Shoppach, batting .349 and driving in 18 runs going into Monday, while consistently drawing praise from Maddon for his excellent at-bats. Shoppach's return will force the Rays' front office to make a difficult decision, as the team will likely have to choose two of its three serviceable catchers in Shoppach, Jaso and Dioner Navarro.
While Shoppach has yet to begin his rehab assignment, Joyce has played four games for the Class A Charlotte Stone Crabs, going 5-for-14 with two doubles, a home run and four walks. He has only played designated hitter, however, and will likely need to spend more time in the outfield before his rehab goes any further. Maddon remained optimistic, though, and pointed to Joyce's quality at-bats since beginning the assignment in Port Charlotte.
"He's doing well," Maddon said. "We're going to accelerate that soon."
ST. PETERSBURG -- Manager Joe Maddon continued his lineup shuffle Monday, slotting John Jaso in the five-hole and moving Carlos Pena down to seventh while using Hank Blalock at designated hitter due to his previous success against the Red Sox. Maddon said Ben Zobrist, batting third, provides the best chance to get a runner on base for Evan Longoria, and Jaso is the best protection for the star third baseman, resulting in "a nice little Longo sandwich we've got going on right now." ... The batting order will be different once again Tuesday, as Maddon said catcher Dioner Navarro will return to the lineup. ... The Rays' 32-12 record is the best 44-game mark since the 2001 Mariners (33-11), and the historically impressive numbers don't stop there: Their 19-5 road record is the best through 24 games since the 2002 Red Sox went 20-4; the 138 runs they've allowed are the fewest by a Major League team through the first 44 games since 1990; and their .727 winning percentage is 122 points ahead of the next-best team, the Phillies at .605, the biggest margin between the first- and second-best records on this date since 1984. ... Tampa Bay started a seven-game homestand Monday night and will play 13 of its next 18 games in Tropicana Field, where the team is 12-7 on the year.
Adam Berry is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.