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Tampa Bay Rays waiting for more from Evan Longoria

ST. PETERSBURG — Now, it is Longoria's turn. Eventually, it was bound to be.

He was injured in April, and he was lost in May, and he spent most of June tinkering with his swing like a mad scientist. (What was he mad about? His average, no doubt.)

Now it is darned-near-July, it is time for Longoria to take his team in his bare hands and carry it for a while.

So far, the Rays' season has been a surprisingly effective relay race with different players taking their turns at being the hot hitter. It was Sam Fuld for a while and then Matt Joyce and then Casey Kotchman and then Justin Ruggiano. Somebody. Anybody.

Now, with half of a season almost complete, it is time the Rays' star took over. It is Longo time.

Finally.

If the Rays are going remain in the American League playoff race, if the lineup is going to continue to look productive, it is up to Longoria to lead them. Who else? When else?

Of the many impressive factors of the Rays' season so far is this: Pretty much, they have done it largely without their best hitter. Between injuries and a swing he could not quite rediscover, it has been a frustrating season for Longoria.

In the past week, however, there has been a familiarity to Longoria. Once again, he has found his old easy stance, and once again, he has rediscovered that sweet swing of his, and once again, the ball snaps off the bat so distinctively that you would know it was him even if your back were turned. Once again, Longoria has been Longoria.

As the Rays close in on July, what better news could there be?

Always, it seems, Longoria's has been the most important bat in the lineup. When Longoria is hitting, the Rays' lineup is more dangerous and the dugout is a great deal happier. When Longoria hits, it seems that everyone hits.

And when he does not? Well, the result looks a lot like Monday night's game, a 5-0 loss to the Reds in which very little went right.

If you have followed the Rays, this should not surprise you much. For instance, Longoria has now started 49 games this year. In the 26 they have won, Longoria has batted .337 with seven homers and 30 RBIs. In the 23 they have lost, he has batted .111 with two homers and three RBIs.

What that tells you is that Longoria is still the trail boss around here. If the Rays are on the way to anywhere, it is up to Longoria to lead them there.

Say this for Longoria. If it takes it, he is apparently willing to go bare-knuckled to make it happen.

That's the cutesy part of Longoria's recent success, of course. He shed his batting gloves in Houston, just as his swing returned to him. What's next? If he needs to steal a base, will he go barefooted? If it takes it, is he willing to play the field without a glove, too?

"You might want to check his underwear and see what he's wearing there, too," manager Joe Maddon joked before the game. "He may have some Victoria's Secret stuff under there."

The truth of it, of course, is that except for what it says about Longoria that he was willing to try anything, the gloveless at-bats really haven't had a lot to do with anything.

The return of his swing? That has meant everything.

For Longoria, that is the real story. Finally, he is relaxed at the plate. Most people have no idea how elusive a major-league swing is, even for a player who has earned his living doing it. Most people do not realize how fragile confidence is, even for an established player. Most people have no idea what a vexing, difficult season it has been for Longoria.

"It's been very frustrating," Longoria said. "Without a doubt, it's been the most frustrating season of my career. I was searching, and a lot of different things were going on. It was confusing. There is a feeling of not knowing what you were doing or of feeling lost."

He was overthinking. He was pressing. Worst of all, he was tinkering. He would see a hitter on television who was having success, and he would try to copy him. He kept moving his hands around. It didn't work. Nothing worked. Nothing felt right.

"He was doing things I've never seen him do," Maddon said.

The swing started to return last week in Milwaukee. One day in Houston, however, he left his batting gloves and hit in the cage without them. In his second at-bat, he left them in the dugout on purpose, and he hit one out of the park. And suddenly, he was the batter with the naked hands.

For the record, Longoria wears Nike batting gloves. Best as anyone can remember, of course.

And so everyone is asking him about blisters and splinters, and how bad the sting is when a pitch jams him, and how long he might go without them. Hey, it beats asking about a low batting average.

The gloves? They'll come back eventually. And they'll have very little to say about the rest of the season.

The swing? That will determine just how long this season stays interesting.

Tampa Bay Rays waiting for more from Evan Longoria 06/28/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 28, 2011 1:14am]
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