It wasn't difficult to discern that last Thursday and Friday's playoff games were the first ever held in Tampa Bay. The ticket scalpers, blessed with only the 24th and 25th sellouts of this unprecedented Rays season, were unsophisticated: A retirement-age couple, wearing matching pleated khaki shorts, milled about with computer-printed signs scotch-taped to their backs that read, "FOR SALE: RAYS TICKETS," and another gent with a shaved head, who had yet to develop the finely-honed stage whisper of the entrepreneurs of the Bronx's River Avenue or Boston's Lansdowne Street, simply stood within yards of one of Tropicana Field's gates and repeatedly screamed, "WHO NEEDS SOME?"
A local radio correspondent, when asked on-air to describe the pre-game scene, reported, "I can't put this into words ... I can't put this into words," which would normally be a problem for someone whose living depends largely upon an ability to put things into words. Inside the dome, a peppy guy with a mohawk kept appearing on the Jumbotron to instruct the crowd on the basics of post-season fandom ("When the screen says MORE COWBELL ... Ring your cowbells!")
The person who most seemed to act as if he'd been there before, as coaches love to say, was a young man who couldn't possibly have been there before, with the Rays or with anyone else. Twenty-two-year-old third baseman
On his next swing, on an 0-1 count in the bottom of the third, Longoria drove a Vazquez breaking ball even farther: It struck the Trop's Catwalk C, for another homer to again give the Rays the lead, this time at 4-3. After Longoria's third swing of the day, in the bottom of the fifth, produced a sharp RBI single, White Sox manager
There wouldn't prove to be many more ball marks added to the sweet spot of Longoria's bat over the final three games of the ALDS -- he had just one more hit, a Game 2 RBI single, and struck out six times -- but his teammates followed the lead he set in Game 1 and handily dispatched the far more experienced Sox. Here was
Even so, Longoria knows that the Rays will need not just fearlessness but consistent production out of his cleanup spot if they are to dethrone the Red Sox, against whom he hit .245 with one homer in 49 regular-season at-bats, in the ALCS. "When I get the ones I need to hit, I gotta hit 'em," he said in the victorious visitors' clubhouse at Chicago's U.S. Cellular field on Monday night, as the rest of the Rays bathed each other in champagne. "I need to make the plays on defense and do everything right to help the club win."
His teammates have little doubt that he will do just that. "I've seen some pretty darn good rookies, but I've never seen anybody of his caliber," says 39-year-old reliever
"I laugh when I think about what this city's going to see for nine years," says veteran outfielder
Then there's the view of Upton, who, as he walked by the throng of reporters that surrounded Longoria's locker after his Game 1 heroics, said to no one in particular, "This kid is Jesus in cleats."
Longoria's next chance to astonish will come on Friday, when Tampa Bay hosts Boston in Game 1 of the Rays' first-ever ALCS. The cowbells -- unprompted, one expects -- will be ringing.