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In Game 2, Longoria was what he needs to be: indispensable

ST. PETERSBURG — If the first postseason game was about his potential, then Saturday night's was about his character. Consider that as you ponder the future of Evan Longoria this morning.

It is not that he hit two doubles, a homer and drove in three runs in Game 2 against the Red Sox. And it is not that he drove in a tying or go-ahead run in each of his first three at-bats.

What's most remarkable is the circumstances: the 13 at-bats and the eight long days that preceded Saturday night.

Since beginning his postseason career with two homers, a single and a walk in Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the White Sox on Oct. 2, Longoria had been several shades of awful.

He struck out. He left runners on base. He looked confused. And he struck out some more.

Longoria had been hitless in 13 at-bats and was 1-for-16 with eight strikeouts going into Game 2 against Boston. Rarely has a cleanup hitter ever left such a mess in the postseason.

Now think about that for a moment. Longoria was four days past his 23rd birthday and in the most embarrassing stretch of games in his life. And now think about how he responded on Saturday night.

"The postseason is all about the moment," Longoria said. "You have to perform when it matters most. This was big for me."

From the time he started hitting line drives around Al Lang Field in spring training, we have marveled at the maturity and confidence of this third baseman from Downey, Calif. And we have wondered where it might all lead.

Game 2 was a pretty good indication.

Rays manager Joe Maddon acknowledged earlier Saturday that Longoria had been pressing. Longoria had become so frustrated that he had expanded his strike zone and was chasing pitches he would normally ignore.

"It happens," Maddon said. "It happens to everybody."

So Maddon pulled Longoria aside before the game. He told him to relax and to use the same approach Longoria had used in the regular season.

"It seems like whenever I have that one-on-one with Joe I have some success after," Longoria said. "So, if he's listening, maybe he can do it more often for me. It does help me relax, and have fun and just enjoy this whole thing."

He became the sixth rookie in history to hit as many as three home runs in the postseason and is now one behind Miguel Cabrera for the rookie record.

Longoria's was the most impressive performance in a night cluttered with them. There were home runs being hit from every direction, and critical managerial decisions every few minutes. (By the way, Grady Little would have taken Josh Beckett out sooner.)

Yet, for all the hitters who made critical contributions, the Rays absolutely needed Lon­goria to step up. This team won 97 games in the regular season and rolled past the White Sox in the ALDS, but it is not close to being a fearsome offensive lineup.

The Rays have won with starting pitching. They have won with a deep bullpen. They have won with the best defense in the American League. And they have won with timely hits, but not bunches of them.

And that's what makes Longoria indispensable this postseason. Tampa Bay simply can not afford to have the biggest bat in the middle of the lineup go silent. Especially with Eric Hinske and his 20 home runs left off the postseason roster. Carlos Pena is feared. Carl Crawford is a two-time All-Star. B.J. Upton may be as talented as anyone.

But at this moment, it is inconceivable that Tampa Bay could go any deeper in the postseason without Longoria playing a huge role.

There have been plenty of memorable Rookie of the Year candidates, as Longoria has surely been in 2008. There have been a handful of other rookies who have shown flashes of brilliance in the postseason. Some have disappeared, and some have gone on to become staples in the game.

The beauty of Longoria's game is that it appears to be without flaw. He will run into more rough times in the future, but you get the sense that nothing short of injury will keep him from being a fixture on future All-Star teams.

His approach is too methodical. His talent too immense. We learned much by watching Longoria for six months during the regular season, but we learned a lot more by watching three at-bats Saturday night.

This kid will not get rattled. He will not be weighed down by doubt.

"As a professional hitter, you have to realize where you are. You don't get here by being a slouch. You have to believe in yourself," Longoria said. "I knew I was going to come out of it, it was just a matter of time."

Game 2 will go down as the most tense five hours of baseball Tampa Bay has known.

And Evan Longoria was the guy who was as cool as anyone.

In Game 2, Longoria was what he needs to be: indispensable 10/11/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 13, 2008 2:02pm]
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