Tampa Bay Rays' ailing star Evan Longoria demonstrates his leadership

Evan Longoria, shrugging off an injury, puts the Rays on top 5-0 in the fifth inning with a two-run homer off Rangers reliever Derek Holland. Longoria was 3-for-4 after entering 1-for-12 in the ALDS.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Evan Longoria, shrugging off an injury, puts the Rays on top 5-0 in the fifth inning with a two-run homer off Rangers reliever Derek Holland. Longoria was 3-for-4 after entering 1-for-12 in the ALDS.

ARLINGTON, Texas

If he had not just provided you with so much pleasure, perhaps you might have felt his pain.

Evan Longoria, the kid with the porcupine inside of his right quad, was gaining on second base. It should be pointed out that he has moved more smoothly. Longoria shuffled forward like your Uncle Henry at mealtime, and the sight of it made you wince.

Longoria ran, his left leg dragging behind his right, limping, lurching, galumphing toward the bag. He ran like an automobile rolling along with a flat tire, until you wondered if a teammate should give him a push. And still, running on his will and one wheel, he made it.

Such is the image of the Rays, faltering along but still managing to make it to their destination. Say what you will about the wobbles, but the third baseman is still moving forward. His team, too.

This is what grit looks like. It does not always look sleek and it does not always seem swift, but it tends to keep a player moving forward. Along the way, it can help to infuse a team.

Longoria's bat drove the Rays home Sunday afternoon. After a 1-for-12 start (.083) in the American League division series, Longoria hit two doubles and a two-run homer to lead his team to a series-tying 5-2 victory over the Texas Rangers. Just like that, the Rays have hit their stride again, even if Longoria's looks a bit off-kilter.

For the Rays, there are few sights that look as good as Longoria when he is swinging the bat, especially when players like Carlos Peña and B.J. Upton are swinging along. If Tuesday night's game against the Rangers really is a showdown, the Rays finally look fully loaded again.

Always, Longoria has flourished in the spotlight. Impact players show up in important games, and as they say around here, it doesn't matter if they have a hitch in their giddy-up.

You mention pain, and Longoria shakes his head. He admits to a little "soreness," but nothing more. You bring up his limp, and he makes a joke. "I felt like Kirk Gibson going around the bases," he said. You bring up his injury, and he dismisses it as if it were nothing more than an inconvenience.

His teammates, however, know better.

"It hurts," Peña said. "I know it hurts. But I wouldn't expect anything else from him. He's a fighter, man. That's how much heart he has. There is no secret to what he is, how big his heart is. It doesn't surprise me. Yet, it inspires me, you know?"

Rocco Baldelli, who knows a little bit about leg muscles and a lot about pain, smiles when he talks about Longoria.

"No one is ever going to know about how much pain he is in," Baldelli said, "because Evan is never going to tell anybody. Until he can't walk in a straight line, he's going to be out there playing.

"Everyone can see (Longoria's determination). It's the sort of thing where a fan watching on TV only gets whatever clips they're shown, but as a teammate, it's apparent this guy is going to do everything he can to get this team to where it needs to be. He's a leader, and he's going to be one as long as we're playing."

So how long does it take Longoria to get to second base? It started about 8 a.m., an hour before the team bus left the hotel. Longoria packed himself into a cab with the Rays' training staff, and the group left to get an early start on Longoria's injury.

The preparation begins with a Class 4 laser designed to bring blood — and its oxygen and nutrients — to the proper spots. Trainer Ron Porterfield focused on eight spots, each about the size of playing card, for two minutes each. There is ultrasound muscle stimulation and anti-inflammatories and massage and strengthening exercises and working on sore, tender parts of the leg. There are hot whirlpools and cold ones and work on surrounding tissue.

"Are we going to get him healed? No," said Porterfield. "But can we maintain it so he can play the next day? That's what we're trying to do."

In other words, there is a lot of heavy work before his uniform leaves the hanger. And after the game, there was enough ice to stock your local convenience store strapped to his leg. To the untrained eye, it appeared the Rays might be trying to cryogenically freeze his leg until Tuesday night.

To Longoria, 25, it is all worth it.

"I'm just happy to be able to play in the playoffs," he said. "When I injured myself in New York, that was all that was going through my mind. 'How could you do something so stupid?' But I was finally able to come through today. It felt pretty good."

It affects him. He does not have the same range in the field. He cannot steal a base as he can occasionally when healthy. He cannot stretch a single into a double or a double into a triple.

But, yeah, Longoria can still hit. He can still ruin a pitcher's afternoon. At the plate, it seems that one healthy leg is plenty.

In sports, after all, the best moments seem to come with a limp. Remember Willis Reed coming through the tunnel? Remember Derek Redmond leaning on his father to cross the finish line in the Olympics? Remember Gibson hobbling around the bases?

"It's good to see that guy, that leader, sucking it up and going out there and playing strong," catcher John Jaso said. "It's what guys, especially him, have to do in the postseason. He might be hurting a little bit, but he's toughing it out. He wants to play."

Why not? This is the postseason, after all. The destination isn't that far in the distance.

Even if it takes dragging his leg along, Longoria seems determined to get there.

Tampa Bay Rays' ailing star Evan Longoria demonstrates his leadership 10/10/10 [Last modified: Monday, October 11, 2010 8:44am]

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