ST. PETERSBURG — As they sputtered through the first month of the season, a lot of Rays talked a lot about how things would get better.
Evan Longoria is doing something about it.
Thursday, Longoria delivered the clutch hit in the win over Boston and then a message, saying how the Rays came out next would be "a test of this team's character."
Friday, he made sure they passed, hitting a fifth-inning grand slam to lead them to a 6-2 come-from-behind victory before a Tropicana Field crowd of 27,045.
"It's always good," manager Joe Maddon said, "when Joe Willie Namath shows up."
The Rays (10-14) won consecutive games for the first time since April 12-13 with a chance tonight for their first three-game win streak. They moved out of last place in the AL East for the first time in two weeks, within 4½ games of Boston and 5½ of first-place, for now, Toronto.
Longoria is in just his second season and at 23 is the youngest player on the team. But Friday was another example of both his tremendous talent and extraordinary ability to come through when needed most.
"Longo is the kind of player that likes the big moment," Maddon said.
"We believe Longo is — I'm going to say something really stupid — pretty good and that he's going to continue to get better."
"He's got that 'it' factor," said teammate Carl Crawford. "He lives for those moments. Some guys have it, and some guys don't. He's one of those guys who has it. He seems to thrive on those type of moments."
Longoria went as far as saying he enjoys them and, thus far, has prospered as he leads the American League with 28 RBIs (including seven that tied or put the Rays ahead) to go along with seven homers, a .368 average and 1.159 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentages).
"As the guy who's in the third slot, that's where you want to be," he said. "If I'm going to be hitting there, I've got to be driving in runs. I think your senses get a little bit heightened and you get locked in a little bit more in those situations. I enjoy it a lot, especially when you come through."
The Rays were down 2-0 after a steadier start by Andy Sonnanstine when they stirred in the fifth against Justin Masterson. They loaded the bases and scored one run with some small ball — a single, walk, sac bunt (their second of the season!), hit-by-pitch and B.J. Upton sac fly — then reloaded them when Crawford walked.
Then Longoria — whom Maddon said is better prepared, doing better in two-strike situations and making more use of the whole field — played long ball. He battled back from an 0-and-2 count, was surprised not to get another slider and instead jumped on a misplaced 2-and-2 fastball for his second career grand slam. Two pitches later, Carlos Peña hit his majors-high 10th home run, and the red-hot bullpen took it from there.
Longoria said he wasn't trying to call attention to himself or call out his teammates on Thursday, merely stating the obvious: They needed to cobble back-to-back good games. And then he said something else interesting.
"The character of our team last year was unbelievable; our ability to rebound after a loss and our ability to kind of stay even-keeled when we were on winning streaks," he said. "So this is big. I think it puts a lot of belief back in our club that even if we go through a rough stretch, that we're still going to be all right. And I know a lot of guys, or everyone who was in this clubhouse last year, has that feeling, that same feeling we had last year."