Longo

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Ever since Evan Longoria became Tampa Bay’s starting third baseman in 2008, the Rays have made it to the postseason three times, and it’s not a coincidence.

And despite this past weekend’s sweep by the host Dodgers over the Rays (66-50), they are on track for a fourth appearance in the playoffs, and are in contention for the top spot in the American League East, three games behind first-place Boston.

Like the rest of the Rays, Longoria struggled versus the high-flying Dodgers, who outscored Tampa Bay, 20-8, in the three-game series.

In Sunday’s 8-2 loss, Longoria went hitless in four at-bats, in Saturday’s 5-0 shutout, doubled in four at-bats, and in Friday’s 7-6 heartbreaker, doubled in four at-bats, and scored during the three-run fifth inning.

Thought to be too slim for high-end Division I college baseball, Longoria, a three-time All-Star, had to settle for a stint at Rio Hondo Community College, but his impact on the Rays’ lineup has been so steady and productive that Manager Joe Maddon can pencil in his name and expect big things.

Most of the time Longoria, who attended St. John Bosco High, and later Cal State Long Beach, has delivered.

Longoria is batting .264, with a team-best 22 homers, and a team-high 62 runs batted in for a Rays squad that has some power, but whose main strength, aside from pitching, is hitting the ball into the gap.

Kelly Johnson is second in homers with 16, followed by Matt Joyce with 14, while Ben Zobrist has 54 RBIs, and James Loney, a former Dodgers first baseman, leads Tampa Bay with a .312 batting average, and is third with 53 RBIs.

In most big innings, Tampa Bay will scramble for three singles, a double, two walks and an occasional homer.

This formula has worked to near perfection because they also have 14-game winner Matt Moore, 10-game winner Jeremy Hellickson, and last season’s Cy Young award winner and six-game victor, David Price, on the mound, which allows the Rays to stay close in every game.

It was in 2008, Longoria’s first season in the majors, and one in which he was named Rookie of the Year, that his exploits helped Tampa Bay reach the World Series, but was ousted in five games by the Philadelphia Phillies.

Still, this proved a turning point for the Rays, a longtime doormat, because they could compete with the high-salaried New York Yankees and Red Sox.

Longoria’s numbers from that year included 27 homers and 85 RBIs along with 31 doubles and a .272 batting average.

So impressed was Tampa Bay with Longoria, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2006 draft, that it signed him to a long-term contract that won’t allow him to be eligible for free agency until after 2023.

The Rays have built their team around Longoria, who had a stellar second season as he belted a career-high 33 homers with a personal-best 113 RBIs, but dipped slightly in 2010 when he slapped 22 homers with 104 RBIs.

Longoria pulled himself together in 2011, driving in 99 runs and smacking 31 homers, and his statistics this year should resemble his career average.

The similarity between Longoria and Maddon, a one-time bench coach under Mike Scioscia with the Angels, is uncanny. Reserved and focused, they’re unflappable, and have made quite a combo.

Rick Assad has been a sportswriter for more than two decades. He has a political science degree from UCLA, a journalism degree from CSUN, is a staff writer for diamondboxing.com, and is a columnist for socalboxing.wordpress.com. You may e-mail him at richsports5@sbcglobal.net.

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