Saturday, December 16, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Tampa Bay Rays do solid job of hanging in before return of Evan Longoria

ST. PETERSBURG

Manager Joe Maddon said the Rays hoped to "tread water" during the extended absence of third baseman Evan Longoria.

But they've more than maintained in the 42 games they've been without their three-time All-Star and cleanup hitter, who is expected to return this week from a partially torn left hamstring.

The Rays were 36-28 through Friday and within striking distance of first place in the AL East, having gotten there without playing their best baseball. They've mixed and matched their lineups, with unexpected role players stepping up.

Ben Zobrist is not surprised. He said it's a product of a resilient mind-set created in their 2008 World Series run: They don't worry about the guys they're missing. (And they've had 10 players on the disabled list at some point this season, including reliever Kyle Farnsworth, leftfielder Desmond Jennings and centerfielder B.J. Upton).

It's just next man up.

"We're finding a way to win and focusing on the games and players we have right now," outfielder Matt Joyce said. "Of course we're excited to get Longo back, and everyone knows what he's capable of. But at the same time it's not like we've got to wait until Longo gets here to win."

The expected return of Longoria and infielder Jeff Keppinger (broken right toe) this week would be a huge lift for the team in many ways. Adding two right-handed bats would solidify the lineup, especially against lefties, whom the Rays are 9-13 against this season.

Their defense, which has been uncharacteristically shaky, will have a more regular look, with Longoria at third, allowing Sean Rodriguez to play more at shortstop. Those bench players who have been thrust into more everyday roles, such as Elliot Johnson, can be used in more typical fashion while having gained the confidence from performing well in a pinch.

"Guys like Longo are regular, everyday players for a reason, and they're more able to sustain a higher level of play over a long period of time, where guys that don't play every day normally can't do it, and that's the way the game works," Maddon said. "You're missing him in some of those close games that we've lost, where some people might not have been able to pick up the slack where it might have been right in his sweet spot."

Zobrist noted how Longoria and Upton helped carry the team offensively in the second half last season en route to its improbable wild-card comeback. Longoria led the majors with 86 RBIs from June 11 through season's end and hit 27 of his 31 homers.

"He's the go-to-guy on this club, everyone looks to him to see what he does," Zobrist said. "And when he's not around, we miss him, we definitely miss him. But we also know that when he comes back, he's going to be ready to come back. He'll be right back where he was."

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