ST. PETERSBURG — Evan Longoria is into mind games.
Especially while playing baseball games.
While much of Longoria's deft handiwork at third base — including a pair of Gold Gloves — looks to be the result of his quick feet, soft hands and accurate arm, it is also the product of his mental preparation, anticipating myriad scenarios and envisioning what play he would make.
"Obviously he has great hands, he has great reaction," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "But it's his preparation before the play happens. You get the sense he is prepared for any ball hit to him. That's probably due to a lot of years of experience but also just the kind of mentality he has. He is constantly thinking a pitch ahead, a play ahead."
A prime example came last week in Boston, when the Red Sox had the bases loaded and no outs in the third. Before Drew Smyly delivered his first pitch to Mookie Betts, Longoria had already processed several factors — how hard and where the ball was hit, who the runners were, how well Smyly was throwing — in deciding what he would do: tag third, throw home or concede a run and try to double up the speedy Betts.
So when Betts hit the ball slightly to Longoria's left, it was an easy call to throw home and get the out, keeping the game scoreless and setting up the potential for an inning-ending double play. Smyly said later that Longoria's play gave him the confidence to get the next batter, Dustin Pedroia, to hit the grounder that indeed killed the rally.
"To me that was a routine play," Longoria said. "Where I position myself in my mind mentally kind of dictates what I want to do with the ball."
In a way that sums up Longoria's defensive prowess perfectly, making the hard plays look easy.
"He's just a constant," infield coach Tom Foley said. "You put him at third and you know what you're going to get. … If Longo doesn't make a play, you're basically like shocked. And he brings it every day."
As much as Longoria, 30, is judged — and jabbed — for not putting up the kind of monster offensive numbers he showed promise of doing early in his career, especially with at least six years and $100 million remaining on his contract, the value of his steady defense can be underappreciated — and overlooked.
"Hitting is going to come and go, there's no doubt about that, but defense is one of those things that can and should always be there," Longoria said. "You see it evidenced by (centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier) last year, what did he save, 42 runs? That's the difference in a ton of wins. And if I can do that even on half of that scale, a third of that scale, you're adding wins to the team, and that's ultimately the goal.
"That's why I take so much pride in my defense because I know how much it can change the outcome of a game. To me it's just as important. You go out there and drive in two runs or you make a diving play and save two runs, it's essentially the same thing. Although it's not as sexy, it's not going to be up on ESPN every night, but ultimately the goal is to win games however you do it."
Cash, like Joe Maddon before him, said the Rays are well aware of how much glove love Longoria provides.
"The thing about Longo is he makes it look easy," Cash said. "He makes difficult plays look easy. That's how special he is."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]tampabay.com. Follow @ TBTimes_Rays