08/08/12 12:25 AM ET
Longo's impact takes Rays to next level
Third baseman returns from DL with club in hunt for playoff berth
By Hal Bodley / MLB.com
"I'm not the savior," he insisted three hours before the first pitch at Tropicana Field against Toronto. "Yes, I'm really happy to be back and hopefully will be able to change the complexion of the lineup. Hopefully, I can provide some kind of a spark and get the offense going ...
"But at least I'll try not to put all the weight on my shoulders."
And once again, he repeated, "I'm not the savior."
Yet after the Rays polished off the Blue Jays, 4-1, most of the buzz in the giddy clubhouse was about how much the return of Longoria meant to a team with its sights set on landing in the postseason for the fourth time in five years.
"It seemed like the guys had a little different spark today," said James Shields, who stymied the Blue Jays on just two hits over eight solid innings. Colby Rasmus' homer leading off the fourth inning accounted for Toronto's only run.
Longoria's defining moment came in the third inning, when, with the bases loaded, he sent a J.A. Happ fastball screaming to right-center field. It fell short of the fence, but was good for a sacrifice fly, which gave the Rays a 2-0 lead.
Longoria, who grounded out in his first at-bat and later fanned, ended his night with a sharp single up the middle in the eighth inning.
"There was nothing about today that was negative," he said. "We get a win, which is the most important, I get an opportunity with the bases loaded, have a good at-bat and come out with a good result there. It's always good to be back here; I've missed it."
As the Rays prepared for the game the atmosphere in the clubhouse and throughout the ballpark was filled with anticipation. It was almost euphoric.
The unanswered question is whether Longoria will make a big enough difference to propel the Rays, whose anemic offense has been their Achilles heel, enough to propel them to an American League Wild Card postseason berth.
"When a guy like Longo comes back, people are really going to read into it and heap all these unnecessary, unreachable expectations," manager Joe Maddon said. "So just come out and play your game. Be yourself, one day at a time. ... And if he's able to do that, I'll be very pleased.
"Part of it is by being in the lineup, everybody else gets pitched a little bit differently. They might see something better, and that's a good thing."
It will be virtually impossible after missing 85 games for Longoria, who will be the designated hitter for the time being, to return to midseason form.
"Any aspect you look at it, he just makes the lineup that much better," said teammate Matt Joyce. "It's not an easy game to miss that much time and come back and pick up where you left off. It's really hard to do. Evan is one of the best and an elite player, so I think it will come back to him probably quicker than for most. But it's hard to expect him to carry the weight."
I'm not sure one player, not even Longoria, can do everything expected of him this late in the season. It's going to take more than one bat.
"This is a different vibe now," Longoria said, talking about the intensity at the Major League level. "There's a lot at stake. We talk at the beginning of the year about how much time is left. It's no longer early in the year. There's a lot riding on every game, every pitch."
In 23 games since the All-Star break, Rays pitchers lead Major League Baseball with a 2.28 ERA, strikeouts (233) and opponents' batting average (.198).
But before Sean Rodriguez singled home Ryan Roberts with two down in the second inning, the Rays had gone 22 2/3 innings without scoring. And during the famine, the team batting average had fallen to .230.
When Longoria when down with a partially torn left hamstring on April 30, attempting to steal second base against the Mariners, he was batting .329 with four homers and 19 RBIs. The Rays were 15-8 and had a one-game lead in the AL East over Baltimore.
Without Longoria, they were 41-44 and struggling to score runs.
That they need offense to back their superb pitching is an understatement.
Joyce added that getting Longoria back "just makes the lineup that much better. His return relieves some of the pressure. He might be the key to get us going."
The Rays have been waiting for their All-Star third baseman to mend. He came back not a moment too soon, pumping a breath of fresh air into this stagnant batting order.
Yes, his presence greatly improves the batting order and the dynamic of how the Rays are pitched to. Ultimately, it's going to take contributions up and down the lineup to build the offensive consistency that is needed.
On Longoria's celebrated return the Rays recorded an impressive victory.
I think you have to believe him when he insists he's not the savior.
But his return has given the Rays more hope than they've had for much of this season.
And who knows how far that will carry them?
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.