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Fennelly: Rays’ hopes riding with Longoria

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Published:   |   Updated: October 2, 2013 at 10:01 AM

CLEVELAND — Monday morning in Texas, he knew, he just knew.

“I woke up feeling really good,” Evan Longoria said later that night while soaked with champagne. “My body felt as good as it has all year. I just couldn’t imagine not playing any more baseball.”

The Rays will play more baseball, tonight, against the Indians.

No. 3 is a reason why.

162 now has company, not shoulder to shoulder, but 163 against Texas will do: three hits, two runs, a two-run homer. No one, maybe in all of baseball history, finishes regular seasons like Longoria.

“I wish I could explain it,” he said after Monday’s game. “I wish I could just bottle it up and take it through 161 games and not have it be on the last day. I was just trying to be a leader, just trying to set that tone, set that example.”

After tonight, this wild-card Do or Done, Longoria will be the only man to have played in all 26 Rays postseason games. He and B.J. Upton were the only two to have played in the previous 25.

Longoria turns 28 on Monday. He was born in October and maybe for October. He’s as much of a Ray as there has ever been or will be. His contract runs through 2022, with a team option for 2023 — 10 years. Other have come and gone. Others will come and go. What will he do here with his time?

This is Longoria’s club, and for it to go far, he’ll have to do heavy lifting, as he did Monday.

Sometimes this season, he seemed to try to do too much, feeling the pressure to lead a team that lacked veteran leaders. Just as the Rays feed off the good Longo, they seemed to swoon right along with a slumping Longo. The whole lineup tightened up and pressed. A team can follow the leader in either direction.

“He wants to be that guy so badly,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “Sometimes, when you’re that good, that young, you want to be everything … the word ‘patience’ comes to mind.

“He doesn’t run away from the responsibility. That should be applauded. He goes about his work the right way. It’s not contrived. With this particular group, because there really is no veteran leader, so how he does might filter down to them more. I can’t deny that. But I give him a wide berth. Let him go, listen to him, help him become what he wants to be.”

What he wants to be is a world champion.

This is Longoria’s fourth postseason in just six years. He made the World Series right out of the box in 2008 (understand: the Rays never won until this guy arrived) and he hit six homers that postseason, a rookie record.

But the Rays have hit a wall — always contenders, they still haven’t won a postseason series since the 2008 ALCS.

Longoria has struggled mightily in October since that ALCS. Over three postseason series since then, he has played 14 games, with just eight hits and a .143 average.

The man and his team need to break through.

Longoria hit .269 with 32 homers with 88 RBIs in the first season, not his best numbers. Rookie Wil Myers was better down the stretch. But No. 3 has to show Myers the way.

In that three-game sweep last week in New York, Longoria had a two-homer game and eight RBIs. He began Sunday’s must-win-did-win game in Toronto by driving in a run in the big first inning. And there was Monday in Texas.

“I could see it in his face,” Maddon said. “He was totally relaxed (Monday) night. I think he’s exhaled. A lot of them have.”

He led the way Monday, calm as could be, and his teammates followed.

Take a deep breath.

Will there be any more Rays baseball after tonight?

It’s up to them. It might be up to Evan Longoria most of all.

Maybe he should just look at it as 164.

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