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Rays' Longoria: Strength is building after shaky start

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Published:   |   Updated: May 24, 2013 at 12:12 PM
ST. PETERSBURG -

Evan Longoria's legs felt fine as spring training came to an end and the regular season dawned. But that's spring training, where innings are limited and days off are many.

One of the biggest questions surrounding the Tampa Bay Rays as they embarked on the 2013 season — Longoria's health — did not appear to be an issue during the first week or so of the season.

Make that, it did not appear to be an issue to anyone who doesn't wear No. 3 and play third base for the Rays.

“I felt pretty bad after the first week of the season, like 10 games in,” Longoria said. “I was kind of scared.”

Longoria missed 85 games last season with a partially torn left hamstring that required offseason surgery. Add that to a history of leg woes and you can easily understand Longoria's trepidation when the bounce he expected from his legs was missing.

“My legs were tired and thoughts started to creep in about how I was going to do it for 162 games,” he said.

Look at him now: A career-best 16-game hitting streak — three shy of the club record of 19 set in 2009 by Jason Bartlett — and a .335 batting average that ranked fifth in the American League heading into Thursday's action. He is the only Ray to start every game this season.

Longoria has reached base in a major league-high 45 games. The Rays have played 46 games, meaning he has failed to reach base in only one game.

For historical perspective, Longoria is one of only 12 American League players to reach base 44 or more times in their teams' first 45 games, and the second major-leaguer to accomplish that feat this century, joining Washington's Ryan Zimmerman, who did it in 2009.

“It's his best baseball I've seen him play, day-in and day-out, offensively and defensively,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “Everything about his game has been superb, and it's been fun to watch.”

What changed? A cold April afternoon in Arlington, Texas, spent as the designated hitter.

The Rays were off the following day, and Maddon decided to give Longoria's legs the equivalent of a day-and-a-half off by keeping him off the infield for nine innings.

“He's of that ilk that he believes it's his responsibility to be out there every day, and if he's hurting a little bit, he's not going to say anything, and I appreciate that,” Maddon said. “So, that's why you have to be practical with him and talk to him and try to auger out those moments to get him off his feet.”

Maddon wasn't aware that Longoria was worried about his legs when he penciled him in as the designated hitter on April 10.

“Nope,” Maddon said. “He's pretty good at withholding.”

Maddon was trying to be pre-emptive, trying to get ahead of a potential problem.

Turns out, being on his legs for only four plate appearances during that 2-0 victory against the Rangers was just what Longoria needed.

“Ever since then, I've felt like my legs have responded really well on a daily basis,” Longoria said. “I haven't felt that same fatigue. I felt like my legs have been getting stronger and feeling better as the season goes.

“So, with that worry behind me, it's just I can be focused on other things. When you don't feel physically 100 percent it's tough to do anything up to your capability. So, I'm just happy that I feel well.”

Maddon used the same approach Wednesday when he used Longoria as the designated hitter against the Blue Jays in Toronto during the finale of a six-game road trip. With Thursday's off-day, Longoria's legs got a much needed break, whether he wanted it or not.

Maddon did use Longoria at third base in the ninth inning after he doubled and scored in the top of the inning to give the Rays a short-lived 3-2 lead. Toronto rallied in the bottom of the ninth for a 4-3 victory.

Longoria spends at least two hours every game day in the trainer's room and the weight room working on his legs.

“It's a constant balancing act to keep in good shape and try not to tire yourself out, to be ready to play the game on a daily basis,” he said. “I've been doing a good job to this point, and I'll continue to do the same thing.”

rmooney@tampatrib.com

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Twitter: @RMooneyTBO

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