Wednesday October 8th, 2008

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 Evan Longoria has yet to play a full big league season -- he was called up two weeks after Opening Day and missed more than a month after he fractured his wrist on Aug. 7 (though he still hit 28 homers and drove in 85 runs) -- and admitted to feeling some jitters before the Rays took the field for Game 1 of the ALDS against the Chicago White Sox. It was clear that his nerves had calmed by the top of the first inning, when he scooped up Jermaine Dye's grounder and nonchalantly flipped it to first even as he trotted toward the home dugout, and clearer by the top of the second, when he crushed the first pitch he saw from Javier Vazquez into the leftfield seats to give the Rays a 1-0 lead.

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 Ozzie Guillen had seen enough, and reliever Clayton Richard walked the rookie on four pitches in the seventh ("That's a guy you want to stay away from," Guillen said). "There's three ball marks on it, and they're all in the same spot," Longoria said afterwards of the new 33½-inch, 31½-ounce Louisville Slugger with which he had done his damage. "The sweet spot."

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 Grant Balfour, the fiery, flame-throwing Australian reliever, barking at White Sox shortstop Orlando Cabrera after Cabrera had disrespected him by kicking dirt in his direction with the bases loaded and two outs in the top of the seventh in Game 1, and then barking some more after he had blown Cabrera away ("I said, 'Go sit down.' I might have mixed one or two words in there with it," recalled Balfour). Here was Rocco Baldelli, boldly scoring from first on a Dioner Navarro bloop to give the Rays a crucial insurance run in the eighth inning of a 6-2 Game 2 win. Here was 24-year-old center-fielder B.J. Upton, doing his best impression of his even shorter-toothed teammate by homering in each of his first two at-bats in Game 4.

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 Troy Percival. "It doesn't matter what the situation is, it doesn't look like he has a heartbeat."

"I laugh when I think about what this city's going to see for nine years," says veteran outfielder Cliff Floyd, in reference to the six-year, $17.5 million contract extension (with three additional club option years) that Longoria signed in April. "I can't say enough about him without feeling like I'm his dad."

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.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.