ST. PETERSBURG — Rays third baseman Evan Longoria will make his much-anticipated return tonight, activated from the disabled list after missing more than three months due to a partially torn left hamstring. Will Rhymes was optioned to Triple-A Durham to make room.
"Can't wait to be back in a Rays uni (tonight)," Longoria tweeted. "See you there."
Longoria, 26, is coming off an eight-game minor-league rehab assignment with Durham, where he served exclusively as DH and went 5-for-25 with seven walks. The three-time All-Star will be limited to DH duties with the Rays and probably won't be able to play every day as they ease him back in.
But while Longoria will need some time to reacclimate to big-league pitching, his return should boost an offense that has struggled to score and a team that went into Monday two games out of the second wild-card spot.
"He's the go-to-guy on this club," Ben Zobrist said recently. "Everyone looks to him to see what he does."
As much as Longoria will be a huge lift for the Rays, both in their lineup and in the clubhouse, manager Joe Maddon has said he doesn't expect him to carry them on his back.
"When he does come back, I think everyone is going to expect the skies to part," Maddon said. "He's going to need to come back and be patient, because major-league players are in August and have been playing all year."
Longoria started the first 23 games, with the Rays going 15-8, before injuring his hamstring April 30 on a slide into second. Tampa Bay has gone 41-44 since and has scored three or fewer runs in 11 of its past 14 games.
"In the beginning when this did happen, I said something to the effect that I felt these offensive players could withstand missing Longo in a better way where we could be more productive even without him based on the guys that are here," Maddon said. "There are some veterans and some young guys that are kind of veterans now that I thought would have had bigger numbers by now and absorbed the loss. That's the part that has not transpired like I thought."
Originally expected to be out six to eight weeks, Longoria appeared to be nearing a return in mid June but cut a rehab assignment short after feeling discomfort in the second game with Durham on June 18. Longoria spent the next several weeks trying to strengthen the hamstring, and feeling he could help the team at least offensively, he started another rehab assignment July 26.
Longoria, convinced he couldn't make the hamstring worse, has acknowledged he'll likely have to play through some soreness. Maddon said they don't want him to push it too much, such as running at full speed, and added they can back off if he feels something and use him as a pinch-hitter in certain games.
"We've got to make sure he's 100 percent, that's the biggest thing," centerfielder B.J. Upton said.
Though Longoria has said he hoped to work his way back to playing in the field at least a few times a week, that remains to be seen. Ryan Roberts, acquired from the Diamondbacks July 24, is the eighth Ray to play third base this season.
And with DH Luke Scott potentially returning from the disabled list next week, Maddon will have some options for when he rests Longoria during the stretch run.
"As a player on this team I just hope he's healthy — a healthy Longo is good, and a non-healthy Longo is not so good," starter James Shields said. "It will be really good to see him back in the clubhouse and just have that leadership and his presence in the clubhouse. I think once he gets here the first couple weeks, he's kind of going to be wondering if he stays healthy or not, and once we get past that point, I think it's going to be good for the rest of the season."
Times staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report. Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What they've missed
The Rays offense has struggled mightily this season without Evan Longoria: