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Rays have folk hero in slugger

October 05, 2008|David Whitley | Orlando Sentinel

ST. PETERSBURG -- Let's go ahead and get this out of way.

Evan Longoria was never Miss Corpus Christi, and Eva Longoria never homered in her first two postseason at-bats.

People who follow the Rays know this and got tired of the Eva-Evan jokes about 70 wins ago.

But it's new to people who haven't seen many Tampa Bay games.

That means just about everybody who owns a TV outside Florida.

For them, Thursday's playoff game was Tampa Bay's national debut. What they saw was a rerun of the last five months.

"An anonymous group that has ownership," Joe Maddon said.

It now owns the only unbeaten playoff record in baseball history thanks to the usual components: decent pitching, good relief, timely hits and Gabrielle Solis.

The young, resilient Rays are one win from breezing into the American League championship series after beating the White Sox 6-2 Friday for a 2-0 lead in their first-round playoff series.

I promise that will be my last gratuitous reference to Eva Longoria.

At least until her near-namesake hits three home runs in a game or sleeps with the lawn boy on "Desperate Housewives."

The star of Thursday's show was asked how it felt to be the first player to hit home runs in his first two playoff at-bats.

"Umm," he said, "just to correct you real quickly, the second." It was classic Longoria. He may be a 22-year-old rookie, but Longoria is an old baseball soul.

He's always in control, ever aware, never off his game.

He was 3-for-3 Thursday with two home runs and a stolen base.

In his fourth at-bat the pitches were closer to Dick Vitale than home plate. Dickie V, by the way, was in his usual front-row spot holding up a "We Love Longoria" sign.

I think he meant Evan.

"I don't care if the next guy hits a two-run homer," Ozzie Guillen told pitcher Clayton Richard. "Stay away from him." With that attitude Guillen should get hired as a TV executive.

The networks love big markets like Chicago, Boston and anything Yankee, so the Rays made fewer national appearances than Sarah Palin.

We're talking three minor regional appearances on Fox since August.

The Rays were on nine ESPN Wednesday night games but never made the prime Sunday show.

Such neglect would have been understandable if these were the old Devil Rays. But Tampa Bay had baseball's best record much of the year.

And it's not as if they are the San Antonio Spurs.

That group wins but is so dull that 67 percent of the TV shots are of Tony Parker's wife. Tampa Bay's roster has performers with star quality.

Thursday's winning pitcher knows it when he sees it, and he saw it right away in Longoria.

"The way they turn their heads," James Shields said. "The way they jab their shoulders." Longoria started the season jabbing in the minors. It wasn't Corpus Christi, but he was obviously destined for bigger things.

He finished with 27 home runs despite missing 30 games with a broken right wrist.

Longoria also gave notice that the Gold Glove for third basemen should be his for the next decade.

"The guy's a stud," Guillen said.

Everybody in baseball knew that. What nobody knew for sure was how Longoria would react to playoff pressure.

He reacted like he always does.

Longoria killed the first pitch he saw. The third one he saw hit a catwalk 125 feet above the Tropicana Field turf.

"Honestly, I wasn't surprised," Maddon said. "He's always in the moment." Just like any good actor.

That doesn't mean Longoria will continue batting 1.000 or the Rays will never lose a postseason game.

But like it or not, the networks may soon have a new show:

"Desperate White Sox."

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