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Tampa Bay Rays better get ready for playoff pressure

Back when he was a young man, back when he was fresh and new, Evan Longoria noticed this about playoff pressure.

Sometimes, it sure is loud.

It was all of two years ago, way back when Longoria was only 23, and he stood in a batter's box that felt, pretty much, like a lion's den. The crowd was yelling its insults, and the intensity of the game felt as if it had been turned up to 11, and the moment felt like a loose electrical wire.

"I remember standing in the batter's box, and the crowd was chanting, 'Eva … Eva' (a reference to actor Eva Longoria)," Longoria said. "And it just felt like I was standing there naked. It was a different feeling, a weird feeling. It feels like you're alone."

That's the thing about playoff pressure. It has teeth. It can choke a man's throat, and it can grip his heart and squeeze. With some players, it can devour reputations. It is the third opponent in a playoff series, and it is nasty. Things move fast and moments blur and the oxygen gets thin and the butterflies feel like vultures.

And the Rays might as well get ready.

It's coming.

Do you think the season has been intense for the Rays, what with the hitting blackouts and all? Do you think the past week has been pressurized, what with the stumbles against last-place teams? Do you think playing in the American League East against the Yankees and Red Sox has been hard on the emotions?

Get ready.

The playoffs are worse.

For the Rays, a team where many things — hitting, middle relief, lineups, rotation, and on and on — can be worrisome, the notion of playoff pressure is nothing to dismiss. Closer Rafael Soriano has been wonderful this year, but he has never pitched in the playoffs. Setup man Joaquin Benoit has been terrific, but he has never pitched in the playoffs.

Then there are the youngsters, whose primary playoff experience was trying to persuade their parents to let them stay up and watch.

Not enough has been made of it, but the Rays are still a very, very young team. Name another playoff team that has used so many neophytes for so many innings. There are the rookies: John Jaso, Wade Davis, Reid Brignac, Jeremy Hellickson. Then there are the darned-near rookies: Sean Rodriguez, Matt Joyce.

Now that the bad teams have gone home, how are the kids going to respond?

We'll see.

"They'll be fine," said Longoria, who finished with six homers and 13 RBIs in his rookie playoff season. "I'm very confident in those guys. Jaso has handled his situation about as well as anybody could. Davis is going to be the same guy, under control, that he has been. Reid is an emotional player, but he has his emotions under control.

"The playoffs are like playing the Yankees and Red Sox every game. When you're on the road, everyone is against you. It's the most excited, loud, energized crowd you'll ever be around."

As Brignac points out, it isn't as if the Rays haven't played in pressurized games. The games in New York. The games in Boston. The games against Texas.

"We've been in tough games all season," Brignac said. "Those games in New York and Boston are playoff-atmosphere games; they just don't have the word 'playoff' in them. Yeah, there are going to be nerves, but once you take the field, it's baseball. It's an enjoyable thing to do."

Said Jaso: "You won't find anyone collapsing."

Rays manager Joe Maddon doesn't think so, either. Perhaps that's why the Rays could flourish with a rookie catcher in Jaso, two young infielders in Rodriguez and Brignac, a young outfielder in Joyce and rookie pitchers in Davis and Hellickson.

This year, those six players have combined for 566 game appearances, 1,200 at-bats and 304 hits. The pitchers have 16 victories, 39 starts and 149 strikeouts.

And in the playoffs, the bunch of them have yet to say hello.

"I'm not concerned," Maddon said.

So what clues does a manager look for in his players to see if they are pressure-proof?

"A lot of it has to do with conversations," Maddon said. "You go to the mound in those moments against the Red Sox and Yankees, and those are some pretty big moments. You walk out there and here comes Jaso. You talk to him, and it's like we're talking now. That's all I need to see. Here comes Brignac. 'What are we going to do?' He's fine.

"You talk to these guys in the heat of the moment, when people are screaming, and they're fine. That's what I look at. Is the conversation strained? What is the look in their eyes? It's normally all good. That's why I have confidence they'll be fine There is a body of work, and I don't think they're going to change."

Think of it like this. Back in 2008, the playoffs weren't too big for Longoria, and David Price looked old enough. Matt Garza was in his first playoffs, too.

Are these kids prepared to handle things the same way?

We'll see.

Gary Shelton can be reached at gshelton@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Rays better get ready for playoff pressure 10/05/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 5, 2010 11:26pm]
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