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As B.J. Upton says farewell, Evan Longoria gives a hint of what could have been

ST. PETERSBURG — The tears B.J. Upton shed in the dugout after a rousing ovation as he left what is expected to his final game with the Rays were proper symbolism for what projects to be an offseason of significant turnover.

But before the Rays could look too far ahead, Evan Longoria provided one last reminder of what might have been had he not missed more than half this season with injury, hitting a club-record-tying three home runs in a 4-1 victory over Baltimore.

"It kind of highlights it," manager Joe Maddon said.

Game 162 of this season didn't compare to last, of course, but it had achievements and drama as well.

The Rays got to the 90-win mark for a third straight season, and fourth time in five, something only the Yankees have done. The Orioles dropped into the second AL wild-card spot, sending them off to Texas for a potential one-and-done playoff experience on Friday.

Rays closer Fernando Rodney, summoned with two outs in the ninth, got his 48th save and, more significantly, finished with a 0.60 ERA, breaking Dennis Eckersley's major-league reliever record. And Longoria, who had two pretty big homers in Game 162 last year, tied the team record he shared with Upton and Jonny Gomes.

"All the different dramatic components of (Wednesday night) came together like it did last year," Maddon said. "The only unfortunate component is that we're not going to the playoffs, which is kind of unbelievable."

Upton, the longest tenured Ray debuting in 2004, said he hadn't allowed himself to think about leaving until he was driving from his Tampa home to the Trop on Wednesday afternoon and walking into the stadium.

But the reality of how hard it hit him was obvious by the end of the night.

Upton received a standing ovation from the Tropicana Field crowd of 17,909 before his final at-bat — "Didn't expect to get that," he said — then another after he singled and was removed for a pinch-runner, waving his helmet in acknowledgement.

There were plenty of hugs in the dugout, and then at least a few tears, then more as he went back on the field — with fans chanting "B.J., B.J." — to hand over his jersey for the Shirts Off Our Backs event, and then again when he came into the clubhouse.

"Tried to hold it as long as I could," Upton said, "but I just couldn't."

With Upton, 28, in line for a massive deal, say $14 million to $15 million over four to six years, there would seem to be no realistic chance for him to stay with the Rays. Though Upton said "there's a chance," the night certainly looked and seemed like goodbye.

"If they don't give me that opportunity, obviously I have to make a decision what's best for me," he said.

Longoria, who came into the game hoping to go deep once to get to 15, homered in the first, fourth and sixth innings, coming out of the dugout after his third for a curtain call, waving his helmet to acknowledge the cheers. He had one chance for a major-league-record-tying fourth but grounded out to third in the eighth.

"It was cool," Longoria said. "That's about as fun a night as you can have in a baseball game."

Though the Rays did better than expected — 41-44 — during Longoria's three-plus month absence due to a left hamstring injury, his value and impact were obvious upon his return.

In the 74 games Longoria started before and after the injury, the Rays were 47-27, a .635 winning percentage. In the 88 games he didn't play, they were 43-45, a .487 clip.

Longoria did his part, hitting .289 with 17 homers and 55 RBIs, which projects over a full season to 37 and 120, and certainly makes for reasonable speculation that they wouldn't have been packing up Wednesday if their third baseman had been healthy all year.

"That is obvious," Maddon said. "That is obvious, but it wasn't meant to be. I'd guess there's at least three or four wins in there somewhere."

What if?

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@tampabay.com.

As B.J. Upton says farewell, Evan Longoria gives a hint of what could have been 10/03/12 [Last modified: Thursday, October 4, 2012 11:29am]
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