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Longoria was the grand marshal of this one


Longoria was the grand marshal of this one
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - The Rays limped into Thursday night's game mired in last place, unable to win a series in three weeks or verify that last season's magic was something more than a fluke. The one thing they had missed as they dropped in the standings, manager Joe Maddon said, was clutch hits.

In the last two games against the Red Sox , the Rays have loaded the bases in each game in need of the kind of game-altering hit they had lacked. In both instances, Evan Longoria came to the plate.

``It's a very difficult moment,'' Maddon said. ``And then, boom, all of a sudden, there it is for us. You always want to see Longo up in those moments.''

The Rays surged through the first two games of this series, including last night's 6-2 victory over the Sox , because Longoria thrived in the kind of moments he needs to thrive in. On Thursday, he smacked an opposite-field, bases-clearing double to sink Josh Beckett into an abyss. Last night, there Longoria stood again, bases loaded and his team desperate. Longoria launched a grand slam off Justin Masterson, who had been one strike from escaping the fifth inning. Instead, Longoria's blast fueled the Rays' six-run onslaught, erasing a 2-0 deficit.

After Thursday's victory, Longoria said last night's game would be ``a test of this team's character.'' The Rays' march to the World Series last season hinged on their resiliency, and they had not won consecutive games since April 12-13. Longoria, 23, had challenged himself and his team, and then he delivered.

``He's got that `it' factor,'' Carl Crawford said. ``He lives for those moments. Some guys have it, some guys don't. He's one of those guys who has it. He seems to thrive in those kind of moments.''

The damage he's inflicted upon the Red Sox borders on comical. In five games this season, he has four home runs and 13 RBIs with a .455 batting average. Including last year's American League Championship Series, Longoria has nine homers, nine doubles, and 27 RBIs in 27 games against Boston.

``It just goes back to the fact that we see their pitching so often,'' Longoria said. ``That's the ROOT of it. When you have four, five, six at-bats against a guy, you get to know what he's doing to you. When we play Boston, maybe everybody gets a little more amped up than you normally would.''

But then, ``I'd like to believe that he's going to do that against a lot of teams as he goes further into his career,'' Maddon said. Longoria leads the AL in slugging at .736 and runs batted in with 28. He's batting .368 and also plays Gold Glove-caliber third base. Maddon has seen Longoria's preparation improve, and with that, a better approach with two strikes.

Dustin Pedroia became the third player to follow a Rookie of the Year award with an MVP. Longoria this season could become the fourth. Maddon met Pedroia at the White House and was struck by similarites between Pedroia and the Rookie of the Year who plays for him.

``I would have to say that personality-wise, beyond the physical abilities, I think you're talking about two guys that may be cut from the same cloth,'' Maddon said. ``They both are good Baseball players, and they have a lot of confidence in their abilities. In watching Pedroia, I know that he's very motivated on an everyday basis. I know that Evan is also. So I think there's some parallels to be drawn.''

Pedroia, with his confidence and boundless energy, can lift the Red Sox with his clubhouse demeanor, and Longoria did that for the Rays with his postgame comments Thursday night.

``That was kind of an obvious one,'' Longoria said. ``We hadn't had two good offensive games back-to-back at all. The character we had last year was unbelievable, our ability to rebound after a loss and our ability to kind of stay even-keel on winning streaks.

``I think this is big. It puts a lot of belief back in our club that if we got through a rough stretch, we're still going to be all right.''

``You have to validate what you're doing at some point,'' Maddon said. ``We just had not been playing well, and primarily offensively. We just weren't getting the big hit like we've gotten the last two nights.''

The Rays know the past two games haven't thrust them back into the league's elite. They are still 10-14 and in fourth place in the East. But they also know, like last season, two important things: they can pull themselves out of a shaky stretch, and they have Longoria on their side.

``It was definitely a start,'' Crawford said. ``I don't where it's going to lead to. But it's definitely a start for us.''

Adam Kilgore can be reached at akilgore @globe.com


Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: May 2, 2009

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