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All-Star's big save, from one Ray to another

NEW YORK — One swing was all it took.

One swing to create a lifelong memory for one man, and to erase the heartbreak of a career for another.

The Tampa Bay Rays have not done much to help themselves in recent days. Too many pitchers have failed to hold leads, too many hitters have failed to drive in runs when it mattered most.

But on a perfect Tuesday evening in the grandest theater in baseball, one Ray saved another. Oh, in a larger sense, Evan Longoria kept the American League alive in the All-Star Game with his pinch-hit, RBI double in the eighth.

But that's not what it must have felt like to Dioner Navarro.

For Navarro, it had to seem like liberation. Like salvation. It had to seem as if Longoria's double had saved Navarro from a humiliation that would have stayed in the record books for an eternity.

"I was happy to do that," Longoria said. "Navie is great behind the plate, he ended up making that great play for Mariano, a strikeout-throwout."

And it was all wrapped inside one of the greatest All-Star Games in memory. A night that began with more than 50 Hall of Famers on the field, a rare public appearance by George Steinbrenner, and a final hurrah for Yankee Stadium.

Yet, for 10 horrible minutes, none of that mattered to Navarro.

Just hours earlier, he walked through the home clubhouse at Yankee Stadium getting Derek Jeter and other All-Stars to autograph his baseballs. The Rays catcher could not have looked happier. He had brought his son everywhere with him for two days, and seemed eager to savor every last memory. His wife Sherley grew up just a couple of blocks from Yankee Stadium, and Navarro had friends and relatives littered throughout the stadium.

He had turned his career around with a splendid first half and now, in the seventh inning of the All-Star Game, he was being asked to pinch hit with a runner on third and one out.

Navarro worked himself deep into the count, but appeared completely fooled when Cincinnati's Edinson Volquez sneaked a called third strike past him.

One batter later, J.D. Drew made Navarro's strikeout seem inconsequential when he tied the game with a two-run homer that barely cleared the wall in rightfield. For just a few minutes, Navarro was off the hook. But the worst was yet to come.

With the Yankee Stadium crowd taunting Jonathan Papelbon with chants of "over-rated" and "Mar-i-ano," the Red Sox closer gave up a single to Miguel Tejada. When Tejada broke for second on a steal, Navarro came quickly out of his crouch and promptly threw the ball into centerfield. Tejada advanced to third and scored the go-ahead run on a sacrifice fly.

If Joey Galloway was playing for the AL, he would have left the field at this point.

The American League seemed absolutely doomed. Their hitters had been mostly silent and the National League had a bullpen full of closers.

As Navarro came off the field at the end of the inning, Longoria was on the top step of the dugout to greet him. The Rays rookie gave Navarro a quick pat on the rear and a simple word of encouragement.

"I just told him he was fine," Longoriaa said. "He knows what he's doing. We all make errors, he's human, it was fine. He picked himself up with that throw with Mariano."

Then Longoria stepped out of the dugout and changed Navarro's fate.

With two outs in the eighth, Cleveland's Grady Sizemore singled to right and stole second. That brought Longoria to the plate as a pinch-hitter for Milton Bradley against Mets closer Billy Wagner.

Wagner has 380 career saves; Longoria has 306 career at-bats. Wagner has been in six All-Star Games; Longoria has been in the big leagues for three months.

And none of that mattered.

With two strikes, Longoria hit a line drive down the leftfield line that one-hopped over the fence for a ground rule double, and the tying run.

For the longest time, it seemed as if the Rays would be the American League's forgotten team in this game. The AL bench was down to three position players late in the evening, and two of them were Rays. They looked like the undesirable pledges in Animal House.

"Dioner, Evan, I'd like you to meet Mohammet, Jugdish, Sidney and Clayton."

Navarro was the last player selected to the roster by Red Sox manager Terry Francona, and Longoria was the final player added in fan voting. So, in a way, their late entry in the game made sense.

But it also meant two of the youngest players on the roster would end up having a huge impact on the game. The last time the American League had lost an All-Star Game, the Rays did not even exist. Navarro was 12 years old, and Longoria was 10. Yet here was Navarro making a crucial error, and Longoria delivering a clutch hit.

For baseball fans, the moment was thrilling.

For a couple of Rays, it was much, much more.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

All-Star's big save, from one Ray to another 07/15/08 [Last modified: Friday, July 18, 2008 10:12am]

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