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Fennelly: Rays’ success starts, ends with Longoria

Published:   |   Updated: May 14, 2013 at 05:21 AM
ST. PETERSBURG -

His club has won five straight and is above .500 for the first time in more than a month. The Red Sox are in town, having returned to earth, beat up. When the Rays were swept at Fenway Park in April, they were a pathetic 1-for-22 with runners in scoring position. Now most everyone is chipping in.

It still comes down to Evan Longoria.

The Rays third baseman is playing like he wants another contract extension — through 2032. He was just named American League player of the week. The ball is hot off his bat. He’s hitting .333 with nine homers and 26 RBIs. He’s in the AL top 10 in batting average, on base, slugging and OPS. No one in the majors has more extra-base hits (20) or home runs (9) since April 15. And to think that his first 11 hits this season were singles.

On Saturday, in a moment we’ve come to expect, Longoria slowed things down, breathed through his nose or whatever he does, and cracked a two-run, walk-off homer to beat the Padres. It was his fifth walk-off homer with the Rays, a team record. You — and the Red Sox — might recall his last walk-off homer. It happened on September 28, 2011. It was the 162nd game of that season.

“I’m in one of those modes right now where it doesn’t seem to matter what they throw up there,” he said.

Now … take him away for 85 games.

That’s what happened last season when Longoria’s hamstring screamed for attention. Is there even any question that the Rays might have traipsed to the postseason with a healthy Longoria? It takes a stretch like this to remind people what those 85 games cost this team in 2012.

“It’s really glaring right now,” Joe Maddon said.

“We were aware of it at the time, but when you see him carry us, like he has for the last couple of weeks, it’s an even bigger reminder of how important he is,” Rays outfielder Sam Fuld said.

There are a lot of things that will have to come together if this team is going to get back to the postseason after a year’s absence. But the biggest is having Longoria out there, day after day.

“That’s always been my goal this year, just stay healthy and let the work I do before the game in the cage and other stuff take care of itself,” he said.

Longoria was the DH on Sunday, then throw in Monday’s off day.

“Getting off his feet, at DH, that’s huge,” Maddon said.

The hamstring has held up. The game is shining.

But remember: Longoria hasn’t played at least 135 games in a season since 2010. And there will be dips. No one is expecting Longoria to hit .333, but he’s tracking toward 30 homers and 100 RBIs. And, for now, he’s getting some real protection. James Loney, hitting behind Longoria, is second in the AL at .376. It matters.

“The simple answer is, ‘Yes,’” Longoria said.

Longoria matters more.

Ben Zobrist worked a walk with two outs in the ninth on Saturday. The Padres led 7-6. Longoria came up. Zobrist felt a No. 3 moment coming on.

“He does have a flair for the dramatic in that situation,” Zobrist said. “He does exactly what we ask him to do in that situation, and that’s why he’s the leader of this team. He really relishes that opportunity. … He wants to be in that situation probably more than anybody else in this clubhouse.”

“Offensively, we’ve been as good as we’ve ever been in the time that I’ve been here, from top to bottom,” Longoria said. “We’re getting production from a lot of different spots. It’s been a huge lift. I think to be a contending team, we have to have that.

“If you look at those teams, there are threats from 1 to 9 in the lineup. We’ve kind of become that. There aren’t a lot of big names, but there are a lot of guys who are having great at-bats.”

It still comes down to the biggest name. It means more to his team than most others mean to theirs.

Don’t believe it? Take him away, right now, for 85 games. Or don’t.

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