At 22, Longoria already mature beyond his years

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Evan Longoria became a Tampa Bay Ray, an extremely wealthy young man and an All-Star Game participant (in the final year of Yankee Stadium, no less) in a span of three months this season. He fractured his wrist, endured a rigorous rehab to come back and probably nailed down the American League Rookie of the Year award in the process.

Unless your name is, say, Lindsay Lohan, it's hard to imagine cramming more stuff into a single calendar year at the age of 22.

Still, nothing provides insight into a ballplayer's staying power like an appearance on the national stage, and Longoria's first exposure to October ball sure proved one thing: He likes it. He really likes it.

The Rays have lots of reasons to be upbeat after beating the White Sox 6-4 in their division series opener Thursday. Tampa Bay showed fortitude in rallying from an early deficit, and overcame the loss of first baseman Carlos Pena to vision problems after two innings. Starting pitcher James Shields gutted out 6 1/3 innings, Grant Balfour did the heavy lifting out of the bullpen, and Akinori Iwamura, Willy Aybar and Jason Bartlett all had their moments.

But most of the postgame clubhouse chatter revolved around Longoria, whose production on the field is surpassed only by his ability to make coaches and teammates strain for superlatives to describe him.

Longoria is so good that resident Rays Buddha/sage Don Zimmer has compared him favorably to Mike Schmidt, Brooks Robinson and all the other elite third basemen he's seen since breaking into the majors in 1954.

Longoria is so good that the Rays picked him seven spots ahead of Tim Lincecum in the 2006 draft, and they wouldn't take a do-over even if you offered them one. Tampa management showed its faith in the kid by signing him to a six-year, $17.5 million deal this spring after he'd appeared in six big league games.

"The big thing is, he enjoys the moment," teammate Cliff Floyd said after Longoria homered twice and added an RBI single in Game 1. "He looks forward to it. This is nothing for him. I think you're going to see a ton."

Although Longoria's career has an awfully long way to go, he already is intruding on Mickey Mantle-Roy Hobbs territory with stories that have an air of folklore to them.

How about this one? Longoria was admittedly nervous when he went to bed late Wednesday night as well as in the car on his way to Tropicana Field before the first playoff game of his career. Shortly after his arrival, he cracked open a box of Louisville Slugger model I-13 bats, picked out two that felt good in his hands and decided one was just right for the job.

Score one for intuition. In his first at-bat, Longoria launched the first pitch from Javier Vazquez -- a 90 mph fastball -- 421 feet over the left-field fence to give Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead.

In his second at-bat, Longoria jumped on a 65 mph curveball and hit it 430 feet and past the "C-ring" that circles the field about 125 feet above the playing surface.

In his third at-bat, he singled through the shortstop hole to knock in B.J. Upton, chase Vazquez and give Tampa Bay a 6-3 lead.

For the record, that's three swings, nine total bases and 35,041 very impressed fans at the Trop. Longoria joined Gary Gaetti as the only players to homer in their first two postseason at-bats, and Ken Griffey Jr. of the 1995 Seattle Mariners as the only players to homer twice in their teams' first-ever postseason game.

Heck, even Heidi Klum doesn't perform this well around catwalks.

"I hear guys all the time saying, 'Man, he's got an unbelievable approach up there at the plate, the way he explodes his hips and his bat stays in the strike zone for such a long time,'" Shields said. "It's amazing. This guy is 22 years old, and guys want to be like him."

With his businesslike approach, Longoria embodies the mindset in the Tampa Bay clubhouse. Manager Joe Maddon wants the Rays to have fun, be aggressive and play without fear. Throw in a mother lode of talent, and it's no wonder the Rays keep finding new and interesting ways to enjoy themselves.

The Chicago series presents a stark contrast in styles. The White Sox are battle-tested, slow afoot, defensively challenged and overly reliant on the home run. The Rays are young, airtight in the field, speedy on the bases and brimming with confidence in their air-conditioned digs at home. Tampa Bay's 57-24 record at Tropicana Field this season was the best in the majors.

For whatever reason, there was an air of testiness throughout the series opener. Before the game, Chicago manager Ozzie Guillen glanced up at some fans behind the third-base dugout and yelled, "You think 35,000 people is a big deal? We get 40,000 for rain delays."

With the bases loaded and two outs in the seventh inning, White Sox shortstop Orlando Cabrera kicked the dirt in disgust while inviting Balfour to challenge him. Balfour obliged, pumping a fastball past Cabrera, then offering up a few choice words of his own on the way back to the dugout.

"He was like, 'Throw it over the plate,' and he started cussing at me," Balfour said. "So I went right at him. It just fired me up to want to get him out. I walked off [the mound] and said, 'Go sit down.' I think I might have mixed one or two other words in there with it."

The Rays, inspired by cowbell power, Mohawk power, Dick Vitale power and the sheer novelty of this joyride, feed off the emotion of their noisy crowds at home. But the clubhouse was largely restrained after Thursday's win.

Longoria, after tucking his 33½-inch, 31½-ounce Louisville Slugger in the bat bag for safekeeping, said he already viewed Game 1 as history and was looking ahead to Friday's encounter with Chicago lefty Mark Buehrle.

That sense of maturity and discipline, along with bat speed, helps make Longoria an elite young player. Although the word "special" is overused in sports, Longoria knows there's nothing wrong with trying to live up to the hype.

"It's important for everybody in this clubhouse to want to be the best that they can be," Longoria said. "I have a chance to be something that you don't see every day or every year. And I'm going to keep busting my butt to do as much as I can to get where I want to be as a player."

The sky -- or at least, the Tropicana Field roof -- is the limit.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.