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Rookie Evan Longoria lights up the Trop with 3 swings

ST. PETERSBURG

On his first swing, you could see stardom in bloom.

On his second, you could see a playoff victory in the making.

And by the time Evan Longoria, the Promised One, swung his bat for the third time Thursday afternoon, it was almost as if you could see the future. And at first glance, it looked a lot like Longoria.

Why, hello, playoffs.

Funny, but from a distance, you always looked a lot more imposing.

Longoria changed all that. Three swings, and the Tampa Bay Rays had stuck their flag into the postseason. Three swings, and Longoria had introduced himself to the nation, and the Rays had won their first playoff game, and the best story in baseball got even better. Three swings, and you wondered if the Rays should take Longoria's new contract, rip it up and give him a newer one for even more years.

Three swings, and Tampa Bay has its own Mr. October. The measuring of Longoria's star quality can hereby commence.

This is supposed to be difficult, remember? A rookie doesn't do this, not when he is still a few days shy of his 23rd birthday, not when he has been back for only three weeks from a wrist injury that shelved him for a month. Like the rest of Tampa Bay, Longoria had never seen the playoffs up close, and like the rest of Tampa Bay, he admitted he had a few butterflies over the prospect.

Then came the game, and as calm as a game of catch, Longoria claimed it as his own.

There was the second inning, when Longoria walked calmly to the plate and launched the first postseason pitch he had ever faced over the leftfield wall to give the Rays a 1-0 lead. Yeah, the kid looked nervous all right.

Or maybe not so much.

"You ever talk to Evan?" said Mike Longoria, Evan's dad, who was sitting next to another son, Adam, in Section 106, right behind home plate. "Evan doesn't get nervous."

Then there was the third inning. This time, Longoria took a pitch. Then, on the third playoff pitch he had ever seen, and the second he had ever swung at, he launched a towering ball that officials said hit the C-ring of the catwalk 127 feet high and still fell into the leftfield stands to give the Rays a 4-3 lead.

It was only the second time in major-league history that a player had homered on his first two at-bats of the postseason. It was the first time a rookie had done it. (The other was by former Twin Gary Gaetti, now the Rays' Triple-A hitting coach).

Then there was the fifth. This time, Longoria took four pitches before stroking a single to left to knock in the Rays' fifth — and eventual winning — run.

For the day: Longoria had three swings, two homers, a single and three RBIs. On his new bat just out of the box, there were three ball marks, all in the same place.

"Right in the sweet spot," Longoria said, grinning.

By the way, in the seventh, the White Sox walked Longoria.

"I said, 'I don't care (if) the next guy hits two home runs,' " Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said. " 'Make sure you stay away from him.' This guy's a tough kid. This kid's going to be an outstanding ballplayer. You see him on the field, and you know he's going to be a great player."

Perhaps, Longoria is going to be better than that. Perhaps he is going to be the face of a franchise.

There are players like this, players who seem to be touched by the angels, players who treat the big moments as if they were little moments, players who act as if the spotlight is no more than a tanning lamp. Longoria is one of those.

Longoria could own this area. Around here, where offensive stars have come in short supply, Longoria has a chance to be the best Tampa Bay has ever witnessed. For instance: Think of all of the children who accompanied a parent to Thursday's game. Any guess who the favorite player for those kids is going to be?

Already, pitcher James Shields said, there are players around the league who talk of how they would like to hit the way that Longoria hits. "He's 22 years old," Shields said. "I find that interesting."

If you are wondering, yes, Longoria is aware of his own potential. That doesn't seem to faze him any more than the playoffs.

"I have a chance to be something you don't see every day or every year," Longoria said. "I'm going to bust my butt to make sure I get to where I want to be as a player."

Ask Longoria what he thinks star quality is, and he smiles.

"I think it means being able to perform on the biggest of stages," he said. "You say those words, and I think about Derek Jeter. It's about performing when the spotlight is on you."

And do you have star quality?

"I would like to think so," Longoria said.

Around the Rays' clubhouse, others seem to know for sure.

"He could have played the game by himself today," first baseman Carlos Pena said.

"He's amazing. We're all in awe of him just like you guys," leftfielder Carl Crawford said.

"He has the will to be a superstar, the will to be a stud," designated hitter Cliff Floyd said. "I can't say enough about him without feeling like I'm his dad."

Three swings, and you wonder how good it can get. Think about the next dozen or so years, and the imagination goes deep, too.

"Over the next 12 years, this is going to be his kingdom," relief pitcher J.P. Howell said. "He'll be like the prince, and this will be his place. He'll hit 500 home runs, and he'll have MVPs and All-Star Games and a couple of series."

For now, this was good enough. Just ask the guy in Section 106. Mike Longoria likes talking about Evan, too. Who can blame him? At 22, his son is a big-leaguer, an All-Star, a probable Rookie of the Year and a post-season sensation.

"I'm not ever surprised at anything he does," said Mike, whose wife, Ellie, and son Lucas arrive in time for tonight's game. "Nothing affects him. It was fabulous. I can't even say how great it was."

A well-wisher passing by yelled his congratulations toward the elder Longoria.

"Come back tomorrow," Mike said. "Maybe he'll hit three."

AMERICAN LEAGUE DIVISION SERIES

Game 1: Rays 6, White Sox 4

Game 2: Today at 6 p.m. | TBS | 1250-AM

Rookie Evan Longoria lights up the Trop with 3 swings 10/02/08 [Last modified: Friday, October 3, 2008 1:29pm]

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