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Rise of Longoria matches the Rays

Snubbed after high school in 2003, he has Tampa Bay on the verge of history.

October 16, 2008|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON -- Three years before a can't-miss label was affixed to Evan Longoria in 2006, when the former Long Beach State standout was the third overall pick in the draft, one of baseball's brightest young stars was the kid everyone missed.

Despite playing two varsity seasons in the high school baseball hotbed that is Southern California and showing what his coach thought was excellent bat speed and power for a smallish player, Longoria graduated from Bellflower St. John Bosco in 2003 with no college scholarship offers. Nor was he drafted.

Now look at Longoria: cleanup batter and third baseman for the Tampa Bay Rays, who enter Game 5 of the American League Championship Series tonight at Fenway Park needing one win over the Boston Red Sox to earn their first World Series berth.

An AL All-Star, a mature-beyond-his-years 23-year-old who hit .272 with 27 home runs and 85 runs batted in during his first season despite sitting out 30 games because of a fractured right wrist and has already set a rookie record with five homers in these playoffs.

The presumptive AL rookie of the year is a franchise player who -- only six days after being called up to the big leagues for the first time in April -- signed a six-year, $17.5-million contract that includes three option years that could add another $30 million to the deal.

"We have more scouts per square inch than anywhere in the country, and not one of them had the guts to sign him out of high school," said Kris Jondle, Longoria's coach at St. John Bosco and now the coach at Santa Margarita High.

"USC was the only school that came to look at him in person, and they liked him, but they couldn't pull the trigger on a scholarship. They all missed out."

Long Beach State and the Rays didn't.

Eventually. Longoria kept taking ground balls, kept hitting until his hands were raw, and in 2004 he played at Rio Hondo College, where he was all-state as a freshman.

He transferred to Long Beach State as a sophomore, and in two Division I seasons, he made quantum leaps both physically -- he went from a 6-foot-1, 170-pound high school senior to a 6-2, 200-pound college junior -- and on the field.

Longoria hit .353 with 11 homers and 43 RBIs as a junior, earning Big West Conference co-player of the year honors, and signed for $3 million the day the Rays selected him after pitchers Luke Hochevar (Kansas City) and Greg Reynolds (Colorado) in the 2006 draft.

Less than two years later, he was in the big leagues to stay.

"It was a lot of hours on the baseball field doing whatever I could do to get better," Longoria said when asked to explain his meteoric rise from undrafted high school player to big league star.

"The opportunity to play at Long Beach was huge for me, going to a big school, getting that exposure, playing on that stage. A lot of physical maturity, along with the coaching I got at Long Beach, is probably the reason I'm standing where I am today."

Jondle, who called numerous college coaches trying to drum up interest in Longoria, says he thinks being snubbed in high school helped mold Longoria into the player and person he is.

"It probably helped keep him focused, driven," Jondle said. "He wasn't pampered from day one. He was able to fight through all the adversity, and I think it really helped him get through it all."

But Longoria did not reach the big leagues with a chip on his shoulder.

"I don't hold any resentment against anybody," said Longoria, now 6-2 and 215 pounds. "I'd be the first to tell you that coming out of high school, even junior college, I wasn't ready. I couldn't play on this stage. I was skinnier, and as I grew physically, I grew baseball-wise. They went hand in hand."

Jondle thought Longoria had the defensive skill set and bat speed to at least play Division I ball.

"Evan has a nice, smooth swing, and the ball jumps off his bat, even though it doesn't look like he's swinging hard," Jondle said. "That's something you can't teach.

"And whenever we faced a real good pitcher, when everyone else on the team was getting blown away, he was turning on balls and driving balls that none of the other guys were handling."

He just didn't turn many heads.

"A lot of guys are late bloomers," said Rick Ingalls, a Seattle Mariners scout who lives in Long Beach and was the Chicago White Sox's West Coast scouting supervisor when Longoria was in high school and college. "Evan didn't play in the Area Code games, some of the high school all-star showcases. He fell below the radar."

Are scouts all over Southern California kicking themselves for not noticing Longoria in high school?

"Maybe," said Ingalls, who first saw Longoria play at Rio Hondo, "but so many kids come out of Southern California, if you kick yourself for every guy you didn't sign who went to the big leagues, you're going to be sore."

As Jondle has watched Longoria in the playoffs, "It's crazy to think he's only five years out of high school," he said. "He's always poised. He's never rattled in big situations."

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