CLEVELAND — Identifying the Rays' most valuable player to this point in the season has been an ongoing process.
At times, cases have been made for LHP J.P. Howell, whose conversion from rocky starter to rock-solid middle reliever was a big part of the bullpen's success;
… for SS Jason Bartlett, whose steady play was a vital element to their defensive improvement, and whose recent absence illuminates the point;
… for C Dioner Navarro, given his turnaround at the plate and less obvious but more important improvement behind it;
… and even for Eric Hinske, a bargain-bin late free-agent signing who carried them offensively in stretches.
But there is no debate now.
And there might not be for a long, long time.
Evan Longoria is an All-Star. He is the leading candidate for AL rookie of the year. And he is the best, and most valuable, player on their team. (Pretty good for a guy who started the season in the minors, huh?)
You see it offensively, where he leads the team in homers (16), RBIs (53), doubles (23), extra-base hits (40), total bases (157) and slugging percentage (.525).
You see it defensively, where he makes routine plays look easy and routinely makes dazzling plays that make a difference.
You see it in his ability to deliver in the clutch, with two winning homers, with a game-saving defensive play, with a team-high-matching 16 tying or go-ahead RBIs.
You see it in the Rays' success, as they were 5-5 without him and 50-32 after he came up.
And you're going to see a lot more of him, as Longoria is quickly becoming not only the face of the Rays but of Major League Baseball, with this week's All-Star Game the first steps of his national coming-out party. Top three pleasant surprises
1. C Dioner Navarro: At this time last year, it seemed unlikely he'd still be the starter, much less an All-Star.
2. LHP J.P. Howell: The list of people who foresaw him having a key role and a huge impact is very, very short.
3. OF Eric Hinske: Kind of like this year's Carlos Pena, a veteran prospering with an opportunity and proper handling.
Top three disappointments
1. OF B.J. Upton: Tremendous talent shows at times — but not enough of the time. And he has fewer homers (six) than Gabe Gross.
2. OF Rocco Baldelli: His health-related absence is magnified because the Rays' biggest missing piece is a right-handed hitting impact OF.
3. OF Jonny Gomes: His absence of performance is magnified because the Rays' biggest missing piece is a right-handed hitting impact OF.
Three biggest wins
1. 7-6 (13 innings) at Oakland, May 19: After back-to-back walkoff losses in St. Louis, they overcame a 3-0 deficit, blew two leads, went ahead on Longoria's 13th-inning homer and hung on.
2. 8-3 (13 innings) at Toronto, May 8: After a sweep in Boston and split of the first two games in Toronto, they blew a 3-0 lead in the ninth when Troy Percival blew his first save but recovered.
3. 7-6 over Red Sox, July 2: Down 3-0 in the seventh, they rallied and hung on (with B.J. Upton making a spectacular catch) to complete the second sweep of Sox at home and open a 3½-game lead.
Three worst losses
1. 13-2 to Indians, July 10: Coming off two tough losses to the Yankees and facing a team on a 10-game losing streak, they came up with their biggest margin of defeat of the season.
2. 9-8 to Cardinals, May 17: Rallied from a four-run deficit only to lose on a walkoff homer, and there was carryover to the next day as they lost on the last pitch again.
3. 7-1 to Red Sox, June 5: The Rays were willing to fight but didn't show much fight afterward and were swept for the second time at Fenway Park.
Three things you saw that you don't often see
1. Troy Percival's four-walk save vs. Marlins, June 24: Just the third time in major-league history a pitcher got a save in one inning or less with four or more walks.
2. Five runs on two swings vs. Cubs, June 19: To start a seven-run seventh that clinched a sweep, the Rays had two walks, two hit batters and a grand slam by Carl Crawford.
3. Three straight homers vs. Angels, June 9: After 64,094 plate appearances in 1,680 games over 11 seasons, they hit three consecutive homers for the first time.
Three best quotes (Joe Maddon division)
"The strike zone was slightly amorphic today."
on umpire James Hoye's work on June 8
"He's kind of like a recovering emotionalist."
on RHP Matt Garza's efforts to be calmer on the mound
"With the price of gas these days, I would have preferred they'd gone to Tiffany's."
after finding out someone was illegally using his debit card to buy gas in New York
Three best quotes (open division)
"As soon as (the Angels' Reggie) Willits got up, it was like, 'You can swing if you want to, but if not, just take your base. Thanks for coming. It's all good.' "
LHP Scott Kazmir, on the work of umpire Derryl Cousins
"You should see my room at the hotel — a hot tub on the patio and everything. They switched my name up with somebody else's, I'm sure."
INF Ben Zobrist, after joining the team
"It's like going from sleeping on concrete to sleeping on a mattress. It feels good."
Veteran OF Carl Crawford, on the experience of winning after 5½ seasons of losing
Three best spats
1. Rays-Red Sox, June 5: Real punches and everything.
2. Matt Garza-Dioner Navarro: Amazingly, it turned out to be a positive.
3. Joe Maddon-Troy Percival: Good thing they're longtime friends.
Evan Longoria supposedly won the online fan balloting for the final All-Star spot with 9-million votes, but there's grumbling in Chicago (of all places!) that it was rigged because MLB wanted his fresh face in New York. … And was it just coincidence that Longoria and the White Sox's Jermaine Dye finished ahead of the three players with steroids issues — Jason Giambi, Brian Roberts and Jose Guillen? … SI.com's Jon Heyman has Longoria his top AL rookie, Joe Maddon the top AL manager and Andrew Friedman the top AL exec. … Does it say something that the Yankees are considering pitching retreads such as Victor Zambrano and Eric Milton, or maybe that's just arrogance? … ESPN's Jayson Stark also named Longoria and Maddon (citing his "unconventional blend of innovation, motivation and articulation"). … SI.com also says interest is growing in two potential trade targets, Pittsburgh OFs Jason Bay and Xavier Nady, with the Pirates seeking multiple top prospects. And the Rockies supposedly want the same for closer Brian Fuentes.
Three best individual performances
1. Matt Garza's complete-game one-hitter, June 26 at Marlins: It absolutely, positively looked like he had no-hit stuff, striking out 10 and walking one.
2. James Shields' complete-game one-hitter, May 9 vs. Angels: Allowed only two runners and retired the last 17; just better than his two-hit shutout of Boston on April 27.
3. Gabe Gross' tying and winning hits, June 1 vs. White Sox: Having been 6-for-64 vs. lefties, he hit a two-run triple off Mark Buehrle then a 10th inning walkoff homer off Matt Thornton.