ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - As the Rays' primary "boulder-pusher," which is how Joe Maddon described him after Monday's riveting Game 3 win, Evan Longoria tends to shoulder the load when the team needs to dig out from a desperate spot.
The Rays faced elimination again Tuesday night, for the fifth time in the past 10 days, so that meant a new opportunity for Longoria to add to his resume. In nine previous do-or-die situations, Longoria had a slash line of .292/.355/.682 with five home runs, including Monday's tying, three-run shot off Clay Buchholz in the fifth inning.
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With a small-market team like Tampa Bay, somebody has to do the heavy lifting, and Longoria -- the club's only $100-million player -- feels like he should be the one responsible. The Rays usually shop their homegrown players once they become too expensive to keep. James Shields was traded to the Royals last winter in a package for Wil Myers, and David Price is likely to be the next to go this offseason.
But Longoria was the exception, signing a pair of team-friendly deals to first buy him out of arbitration and then lock up the third baseman through 2023 with that six-year, $100-million contract. He earned just $6 million this season, but that's still 10 percent of the team's $60-million payroll. While his deal makes him a steal in places like New York, Boston or Los Angeles, to the Rays it's a huge financial investment.
"I understand the commitment they made to me and the commitment that I decided to make to the organization," Longoria said. "And I definitely stick by that. I love being here. And for as many times as I'm able to come through in those moments right there, that's why I'm here. And that's hopefully what the fan base expects of me. In turn, I expect it out of myself."
As Longoria headed for the dugout yesterday during batting practice, he was greeted by a few fans yelling, "Thank you, Evan!" And Longoria being who he is, personally replied, shaking the hand of a security guard before getting to the bat rack. Tropicana Field is not quite the House That Evan Built -- but he's the one propping up this sorry building as the Rays' most important building block.
"He's always been pushing our boulders around," Maddon said. "Longo has been the boulder-pusher around here. Every time things seem bleak offensively, he's picked us up. Among the group everybody is going to look for that guy to lead you."
Longoria crushed a changeup Monday that reinvigorated the Trop and breathed life into a team that was looking for a reason to believe. "We never give up -- never," Jose Lobaton said. "But we were kind of a little bit down. And after we saw that, it's like the energy came back. Everybody was like, we've got a chance now."
The rest, as Maddon would later say, was Rays' history. Longoria's blast stirred up something, apparently, as Lobaton -- a catcher who batted .184 during the final month -- took Koji Uehara deep for a walk-off homer in the ninth inning. Longoria's homer made it all possible.
"The [Red Sox] have been outplaying us all year," Maddon said. "They were outplaying us again. But I think that was the moment. We needed that moment and it occurred."
On Longoria's 28th birthday, no less. He became only the second player to go deep on such a date, joining Willie Mays Aikens, who homered twice for the Royals in Game 1 of the 1980 World Series. Longoria's shot also ended a homerless streak of 36 at-bats against Buchholz, his longest against any pitcher.
And for all of the improbable things that happened Monday, what he did may have been the least surprising of them all.