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Longoria has had all-around great debut for Rays

ST. PETERSBURG — Good thing Evan Longoria got that extra seasoning.

Because what the 22-year-old rookie sensation has done after spending the first 10 days of April in the minors has been impressive enough.

In the last two games against Boston, all he did was make one of the most outstanding defensive plays of the season, diving across the foul line and throwing from his knees to end a game-tying threat Tuesday, then add another clutch hit, a two-run double in the middle of Wednesday's six-run seventh-inning rally that put the Rays ahead.

He leads the team in homers with 15 and in RBIs with 50, and has made them count, with 19 either game-tying or go-ahead. In his first 73 big-league games, he already has had two game-winning homers, a pair of two-homer games and two of the team's longest homers. He has had a six-RBI game and a four-run/10-total base game. He has made 11 plays the Rays PR staff considers "Web Gems."

He has won an American League player of the week award and should soon be named June's rookie of the month.

And he hasn't surprised a soul among those who know him.

"Not at all," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "And I'm telling you he's going to keep getting better. This is just the beginning.

"As he becomes more comfortable here, understands the league better, understands pitchers better, understands positioning better, all that stuff's going to matter."

Longoria is not just a local attraction. He has quickly joined the top three candidates for the AL rookie of the year award and could end up in at least the discussion for MVP honors if the 52-32 Rays remain contenders.

When his name was mentioned on a conference call of TBS analysts, it was literally a lovefest.

"Love him," said Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley. "I love Longoria. This kid is the real deal. He reminds me of an Edgar Martinez and an Alex Rodriguez. And he can play third base. He's so smooth."

Two-time All-Star Harold Rey­nolds raved about his approach, saying: "He loves to play baseball. He's at the ballpark early. He's excited about it." And Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, who knows a bit about playing third base, called him "a wonderful looking prospect. And he just seems to get better and better as he gets his feet firmly on the ground."

When ESPN showed off Lon­goria and the Rays nationally on Wednesday, analyst Orel Hershiser brought more praise.

"The game is already slow for him, and that's amazing for a young player," Hershiser said. "Usually, young players play hard, they play fast, they make rookie mistakes. His world moves slow, the way a veteran's world moves slows."

Tuesday against left-handed-hitting Alex Cora — with a man on, two outs and the Rays clinging to a 2-1 lead in the seventh — was a prime example of the combination of savvy, athleticism and talent.

With Matt Garza throwing explosive fastballs on the outside corner, Longoria was cheating toward the line. He dived to snare the ball, his momentum carrying him fully across the stripe and, aware Cora was a decent runner, knew he didn't have time to get up. He threw from his knees and took advantage of the FieldTurf by bouncing his throw to first baseman Carlos Pena.

"I was sure it was a double down the line, and then he catches it," Cora said. "But it wasn't just that he got to the ball. Other players can make diving stops. It was the way he did everything in one motion. He got up and it was boom-boom — right on the money.

"I'll tell you what, from Day 1 when I saw him, he has this thing where he slows down the game. He's a very, very calm guy — a Cali­fornia-style kid. He doesn't panic. I've been very impressed."

Pena remembered seeing the bottom of Longoria's cleats as he dived, the thump of the ball hitting his glove, and the shock of realizing the throw was on line.

"It's like the old cliche, he never ceases to amaze me," Pena said. "Not only was it a great play, it was a clutch play, like hitting a double when we need it, scoring two runs when we're down one."

Which is exactly what Lon­goria did in the middle of the seventh-inning rally Wednesday.

"He just keeps getting big hits," Maddon said.

Longoria enjoys the moments but doesn't get too excited about his accomplishments, relishing more what he did to help the team, which is why he considered Tuesday's play "one of my favorite plays I've ever made." He also says it would be more meaningful to win a Gold Glove than a batting title.

What he really likes, he said, is winning, as the Rays are 47-27 since he came up.

"You hear the horror stories from the last 10 years about what's been going on here," he said. "And to be part of the turnaround and part of the change is a good feeling."

Times staff writer Dave Scheiber contributed to this report. Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

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Evan Longoria is the third rookie in the past 50 years to have at least 15 homers, 20 doubles and 50 RBIs before the All-Star break:

YearPlayer TeamBreakFull season

1975Fred LynnRed Sox17-21-7121-47-105

1987Devon WhiteAngels16-23-7124-33-87

2008Evan LongoriaRays 15-21-5029-41-96 *

* Projected Source: Rays, baseball-reference.com

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Longoria has had all-around great debut for Rays 07/03/08 [Last modified: Saturday, July 5, 2008 12:35am]

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