Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Tampa Bay Rays' Evan Longoria enjoying newfound celebrity, hopeful of healthy 2012

PORT CHARLOTTE — Starting with the Hall of Fame asking for the bat, Evan Longoria had a pretty good sense of how legendary his Game 162-ending/wild-card-clinching/Red Sox-eliminating home run was in baseball circles.

But it was during a mid-December trip to New York that he realized how far his newfound fame had reached. Having put his name on the list for what was supposed to be a 90-minute wait for a table inside Mario Batali's Eataly dining complex, Longoria within moments was quickly ushered to a table. He got similar royal treatment at other stops during his stay.

"Usually New York City is pretty good about being hospitable to their own athletes and visiting teams and players," Longoria said, "but I swore I've never seen more doors open and carpets roll out for a guy. I'm not even kidding you. …

"It was pretty crazy how one event can shape something in a city. And I think they were obviously so happy Boston wasn't in the playoffs."

While Cooperstown has the Louisville Slugger, Longoria has the memories, plus his cleats and uniform — though the ball, which he said he would have given to the Hall, was never recovered amid the massive celebration. "I guess anybody could say they have it," he said.

The 12th-inning walkoff homer was the peak of an up-and-down season for Longoria, and with the Rays taking the field Sunday for the first full-squad workout of this spring, he talked excitedly about building on the team's success and his own strong second half.

At 26, somehow entering his fifth season, Longoria feels great physically after November surgery to correct a nerve condition in his left foot (Morton's neuroma) and a changed workout regimen that has him leaner and more flexible than years past.

"This year, above all, I feel from top to bottom really good," he said.

And he likes the improvements the Rays have made to the lineup around him, highlighted by the signings of sluggers Carlos Peña and Luke Scott, plus the additions of Jeff Keppinger and Jose Molina.

"This offense, I think we are as solid and as put-together as we've had," he said. "In past years, there's always been the question factor — 'Is this guy going to do what we expect him to do?' … Now there's a lot less questions to be answered, and more so the focus is just on us a unit staying healthy and going out there on a daily basis."

As memorable as Longoria's season ended, it began forgettable as the third baseman strained an oblique in the second game and missed a month, then struggled upon returning and had issues with his foot.

But in 98 games from June 11, he hit an AL-high-matching 27 homers (including 13 in the final 41 games) and racked up a major-league-leading 86 RBIs, though with a .245 average. Over a full season that extrapolates to 45 and 142, and though Longoria doesn't like to talk specific numbers, suffice to say that stretch was more along the lines of what he expects of himself.

"A lot of what this team does, if I'm hitting in the middle of the lineup, is going to be predicated around how I perform," he said. "I try not to put that huge amount of pressure on myself, but of course I have to go out there and put some sort of pressure on myself to produce, and thankfully, it came at the right times and we were able to put everything together."

Manager Joe Maddon said he could tell just from Sunday's workout how much better Longoria feels, and how he feels about himself, noting the fluidity of his movements during drills and the confidence in his words.

"I think that's a very, very big positive for us," Maddon said. "And maybe dangerous for the rest of the league."

Longoria's teammates see even more if he stays that way.

"MVP candidate," starter David Price said. "No doubt in my mind."

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]

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