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Tampa Bay Rays' Evan Longoria returning from disabled list tonight

ST. PETERSBURG — The four weeks the Rays played without All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria actually turned out okay as they went 15-11 and righted their season in his absence.

And they ended up being not so bad for Longoria for pretty much the same reason.

"If I had to sit there for 3½ weeks and watch our team struggle and go through adversity and kind of experience a real low, it would have been tough for me to sit around and just watch it," Longoria said.

"But it's been fun day in and day out to watch these guys and the way they're going about it. I really had no doubts Joe (Maddon) was going to get it together and put the right guys on the field, and the guys that were out there were going to contribute in their own way."

As the Rays welcome Longoria back tonight with open arms and a spot (though not necessarily the No. 3 spot) in the middle of their lineup, there will be two slight concerns:

That the Rays players don't take too big of a sigh of relief and let down.

And that Longoria, in an effort to make up for lost time, doesn't try to do too much.

The Rays didn't really replace Longoria — not with fill-ins Felipe Lopez, Sean Rodriguez and Dan Johnson combining to hit .198 with three homers and 11 RBIs — as much as they made up for his absence with a team effort and grind-it-out approach.

"It's definitely a positive we're getting back one of the best players in the game," DH Johnny Damon said. "The biggest thing we need to avoid is having a let-up with how we're playing and start counting on him to do what he always does."

Maddon acknowledged the legitimacy of the question but swatted away any concern.

"I don't think these guys are going to do that," he said. "I believe there is something to that, (but) I don't believe that our guys will go there. I believe we'll continue along the same path."

Given the emergence of Sam Fuld and Matt Joyce and the resurgence of Damon and Ben Zobrist, Maddon's hope is that they keep doing what they have been and Longoria is an addition.

"The whole group has really found their collective confidence this past month," Maddon said. "So you'd like to believe by sticking Longo in their somewhere, obviously it should make the group even better."

Longoria, speaking on a conference call Monday, admitted that his natural inclination is to "feel like I've got a lot of ground to make up" statistically. But because the team has played so well without him — standing two games over .500 and just 2½ behind the first-place Yankees — he won't feel a burden to produce.

"As a team we don't have anything to make up at this point, which is huge," Longoria said. "We just need to keep playing well and putting wins on the board. So that in itself is going to make things a lot easier for me, not having to press myself into trying to do something that I'm not capable of doing right now."

Longoria, who strained his left oblique in the season's second game April 2, said he should be "close to 100 percent" physically tonight and about 85 percent comfortable facing big-league pitching, needing just a couple of games to get re-acclimated.

He finished 4-for-15 with three home runs and a walk in his four-game rehab assignment at Double-A Montgomery and said the biggest issue was overcoming the hesitancy to take a full swing at the plate.

"That was part of the reason why Joe and everyone talked about getting me at least 12-15 at-bats, to kind of let that pass," Longoria said. "I just needed more swings to get back into feeling that I could swing as hard as I wanted to and let it rip and I wasn't going to feel it."

He will make one concession, reluctantly cutting back on his pregame work, at least on some days.

Given how dire things looked for the Rays after Longoria got hurt — given their 0-6 and 1-8 start, Manny Ramirez's "retirement" then Damon's finger injury — the thought that they'd be above .500 upon his return seemed fleeting at best.

"I would have felt like I'd won the Lotto at that point," he said.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

.Fast facts

The not-so-hot corner

The Rays' production from the third-base spot has been among the worst in the AL during Evan Longoria's absence:

Avg. (H-AB) HR RBI OBP

Felipe Lopez

.169 (10-for-59) 1 2 .222

Sean Rodriguez

.222 (8-for-36) 1 6 .282

Dan Johnson

1.000 (1-for-1) 1 3 1.000

Total

.198 (19-for-96) 311

Tampa Bay Rays' Evan Longoria returning from disabled list tonight 05/02/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 3, 2011 12:00am]
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