ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Tampa Bay Rays boarded a flight home late Sunday afternoon bearing little resemblance to the confused, disorganized, umpire-blaming mess of a team that seemed poised for elimination late last week. They arrived in the Dallas-Fort Worth area with a limp, and leave with a spring in their step.
Figuratively speaking, of course.
Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay's star third baseman, arrived with a limp and leaves with a limp. But his bat has certainly regained its equilibrium.
Through the first three games of the AL Division Series, Longoria contributed a paltry single, a walk and a .237 OPS in 13 plate appearances. Based on his Molina-esque gait on the bases, it's clear his strained left quadriceps hasn't been right. But was he struggling because of his leg, a lack of timing, or simply because he was trying too hard? Regardless of the answer, it was tough for Longoria not to feel like a drag on his team's ambitions.
Not anymore. It's amazing what eight total bases in three hours can do for a man's self-esteem.
After the Rays salvaged their season with a late comeback in a 6-3 victory Saturday night, their team leader and resident MVP candidate cranked up the vise even tighter Sunday. Longoria banged out a homer and two doubles in support of Wade Davis and the Tampa bullpen, and the Rays beat the Rangers 5-2 to force a climactic Game 5 on Tuesday night in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Oddly enough, a series that was utterly lacking in storylines is suddenly bursting with them:
• For only the second time in division series history, the home team has lost each of the first four games. It happened previously in 2001, when the New York Yankees outlasted the Oakland Athletics in the "why the heck didn't Jeremy Giambi slide?'' series by taking the final game at home.
• While Longoria's stroke appears to be back in working order, American League MVP front-runner Josh Hamilton is hitting .143 (2-for-14) and looks as if he's still bothered by the rib injury that kept him out for most of September. That's bad news for the Rangers, who will make the Minnesota Twins feel like gamers if they blow a 2-0 lead in this one.
Even when the Rays were stinking up the joint at Tropicana Field last week, they kept talking about character and resiliency and all the other buzzwords that motivate teams when they're backed into a corner. Before the Rays' team bus left Tropicana Field for the Texas leg of the series, reliever Grant Balfour scrawled a message on the clubhouse white board reminding his teammates that there was a lot of baseball left to play. "It's Not Over. Gotta Win 2 in Texas. Let's Go!'' wrote Balfour.
Little did he know.
"I honestly believed it,'' Balfour said. "We had a team meeting and took away the odds. We said, 'Just take away all the stuff people are saying about the odds of us winning. Take all that away, come together as a team and play each individual ballgame and see how it goes from there.' It worked out good for us.''
As the Rays revel in their comeback, it's tempting to reflect on a Friday meeting in Arlington as the springboard to their turnaround. First baseman Carlos Pena, who had a huge weekend in Texas, called his teammates together and exhorted them to get back to basics.
As Pena points out, Tampa Bay has a lot of second chance-type players and former organizational afterthoughts on its roster to go along with the first-round draft picks. He thought it was time for a little sermon on the importance of unity.
This is a ballclub of guys who love to play baseball, and have gone through many difficulties to get to this point, so we all appreciate where we are. We've already won because we're here. That's a victory in itself. We don't have to do anything more than just be ourselves.
”-- Rays first baseman Carlos Pena
"We just reminded ourselves of our humble beginnings,'' Pena said. "I keep on saying, 'There are no prima donnas on this ballclub. There are no 'super superstars.' This is a ballclub of guys who love to play baseball, and have gone through many difficulties to get to this point, so we all appreciate where we are. We've already won because we're here. That's a victory in itself. We don't have to do anything more than just be ourselves.''
In Longoria's case, that's pretty darned good. He made his third straight All-Star team this year before his 25th birthday, and generated a bunch of impressive historical comparisons. For starters, Longoria became only the fifth player in history to amass at least 20 homers and 30 doubles in each of his first three seasons. The others: Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Orlando Cepeda and Albert Pujols, who's achieved the feat in each of his first 10 seasons.
But after playing in 151 of the Rays' first 152 regular-season games, Longoria hurt his quad while making a defensive play in a game against the Yankees. Longoria rested the quad in advance of the playoffs, and pronounced himself 85 to 90 percent healthy as the Rays prepared to face Texas. But his swing was destined to suffer some collateral damage from all that downtime in the trainer's room.
"I think the biggest thing we're adjusting to is that he didn't play for 10 days,'' said Tampa Bay hitting coach Derek Shelton. "There are some timing issues. Even though we tried to get him out and simulate stuff, it's still difficult to simulate game speed, game emotion, game adrenaline. As we've gotten farther into this series and he sees more pitches and the better his timing becomes, the better swings he's going to take.''
Longoria teed off on a first-pitch fastball from Tommy Hunter for a double in the fourth inning Sunday, and turned around a 94 mph fastball from Derek Holland for a two-run homer an inning later. In the eighth inning, he completed a memorable day's work with a double on a first-pitch fastball from Holland. Longoria led the Rays with a .372 on-base percentage and drew 72 walks during the regular season, but if he finds a pitch to his liking, he's not inclined to dawdle.
Judging from the way he limped out of the interview room following his postgame media session, Longoria's 85-90 percent estimate is a little upbeat. His left leg was wrapped in a bandage (or three) with an Andre Dawson-sized block of ice beneath it, and Longoria half-jokingly said that he "felt like Kirk Gibson'' circling the bases after his home run off Holland.
But the Rays are going home for at least one more game, and that's more than enough to lift an injured ballplayer's spirits.
"I'm just happy to be able to play in the playoffs,'' Longoria said. "When I injured myself in New York, that was all that was going through my mind. We were already in the playoffs, so it was [a case of], 'How could you do something so stupid?' basically.''
The way this series is going, assumptions and evaluations have a way of changing by the inning and the day. First the Rays were the sorry-looking team that couldn't defend its home field. Now the Rangers are wondering precisely what hit them.
It all comes to a head Tuesday night at Tropicana Field, when Evan Longoria will drag his sore left quad to third base and try to help Tampa Bay complete the comeback. He's got all winter to rest.