Swinging the bat came naturally for Evan Longoria. Speaking his mind took some nurturing.
The Tampa Bay Rays third baseman was already one of the most dynamic young players in baseball two months ago when he did something that fledgling stars are often reluctant to do: call out a teammate.
Longoria confronted B.J. Upton in the dugout after the outfielder jogged toward a ball hit in the left-center field gap at Tropicana Field, allowing Arizona's Rusty Ryal to stretch what should have been a double into a triple.
Upton was so incensed that he had to be restrained by teammates, but Longoria's gesture solidified his standing as a clubhouse leader and galvanized a team that had lost 19 of 31 games to fall into third place in the American League East.
"He's got all the tools necessary to lead, and the best one of all is that he doesn't know it," Rays first baseman Carlos Pena said. "He's very humble and leads by example and is just himself. If he has something to say to a brother of his, he'll say it."
His teammates heard him, loud and clear. Tampa Bay has leapfrogged Boston to move into second place in its division and is on the verge of running away with the wild-card race, opening a 5½-game lead over the Red Sox.
Though the turnaround has been keyed by a resurgent offense, Manager Joe Maddon said Longoria's dugout declaration was also "a component."
"I think it definitely was part of the movement," said Maddon, whose team opens a series in Anaheim on Monday against the Angels. "I mean, that probably woke some people up a little bit."
It was a wakeup call that those close to Longoria say the 24-year-old Downey native wasn't ready to deliver in his first two major league seasons.
"That's something he's ready to do where previously he was just getting his feet on the ground at this level," said Ken Ravizza, a sports psychology consultant employed by the Rays who has worked with Longoria since he played at Long Beach State.
"And now I think he's taking the next step."
Longoria has already covered plenty of ground. He was AL rookie of the year in 2008 on the Rays' World Series team and has been an All-Star in each of his first three seasons, including two appearances as a starter.
He is hitting .292 with 18 home runs and ranks among the league's top 10 in runs batted in (82), extra-base hits (62) and total bases (240), shrugging off a brief midseason slump to put most of his numbers back on pace to reach his career averages.
"It definitely is something that five years ago I never would have thought I would be in the situation that I'm in today," Longoria said of his success.
His ascent from a player ignored by major league scouts and major college coaches while at Bellflower St. John Bosco High to one of the most coveted commodities in baseball came full circle this year when he was selected for the cover of the MLB2K10 video game and was featured in a national television commercial for New Era caps.
They were welcome diversions for someone who shows up early at the ballpark most days and completes a meticulous pregame routine, leaving little time for anything other than baseball.
"I'm sure he enjoys it because it's completely away from what he does," said his father Michael, a maintenance worker with the Long Beach Unified School District. "Every rock star wants to be a baseball player, every drummer wants to be a pitcher."
Every shortstop doesn't want to be a third baseman, but Longoria was willing to switch positions once he transferred from Rio Hondo College to Long Beach State because the 49ers already had a shortstop in future major league All-Star Troy Tulowitzki.
Mike Weathers, who coached the infielders at Long Beach State, said Longoria also deferred to Tulowitzki in the clubhouse until Longoria's senior season, when Longoria was the Big West Conference player of the year.
"We didn't have a lot of supporting cast around him," Weathers said, noting that Tulowitzki had been drafted by the Colorado Rockies, "so he had to be more vocal and motivate the guys who were less talented."
The Rays are starting to see that personality emerge. Longoria remained calm but resolute during his dispute with Upton, which has not engendered any lingering tension. Their clubhouse lockers at Oakland-Alameda Coliseum last weekend were next to one another's.
"We're still as close as we've always been," Longoria said.
Longoria said he wasn't consciously trying to become more of an outspoken presence, adding that he preferred to let his epic preparation speak for him.
"If you put your work in and guys see that you really work hard," Longoria said, "when there is a time when maybe you have to be a vocal leader, guys are going to listen because you've earned your stripes.
"I don't like being a vocal leader, but at some point you might have to voice an opinion here or there."
Is that what happened with Upton?