Monday October 27th, 2008

PHILADELPHIA -- Evan Longoria stood at his locker late Sunday night, with a confident look on his face and a gray and black Superman T-shirt on his back. While his demeanor may have been reminiscent of the player who enjoyed a remarkably successful debut season in the majors that is likely to end in a Rookie of the Year award, the choice of clothing served only as a ironic reminder of his brutal postseason struggles.

After a smashing performance in the first two rounds of the postseason that cemented his status as one of the game's future superstars, Longoria has found his kryptonite in the World Series in the form of soft breaking balls out of the strike zone. His 0-for-4 in Game 4 included three strikeouts, each more hapless than the last, and dropped him to a stunning 0-for-16 in the series with nine K's. It has been a bizarro performance that seems all the stranger because it followed a four-home run explosion in the ALCS.

"I'm just in one of those stages where I'm not locked in, getting one or two pitches per at bat to hit," he said. "When you're locked in, you hit those pitches. When you're not feeling great in the box and you only get one pitch to hit, it's tough."

To be precise, Longoria got 13 pitches to hit on Sunday. He put just one in play, a groundout in the fourth inning, swung and missed at three, took two for strikes and fouled off four. Only once did he make solid contact, when he launched a 375-foot bomb to deep left off Ryan Madson in the eighth inning that may not have made a dent in the game's outcome had it stayed fair, but may have broken him out of his slump. "Longo has to keep that ball fair," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "If he could keep that ball fair, it could get him going in the right direction. He hit it as well as he could, but the wind knocked it down, so that was unfortunate."

Longoria can't blame bad luck for the rest of his struggles. Of the five breaking balls the Phillies threw him on Sunday, he looked at one for a strike, took one for a ball and swung through the other three, all of which were down and away, a location that, even if he does make contact, plays right into the Phillies' plans for attacking him. Indeed, while most pitchers use their fastball to set up the breaking ball, against Longoria that pattern has been reversed (nearly half the pitches to him in the series have been off-speed), and the result has been a neutering of the most dangerous bats in the middle of the Rays' once fearsome order. "I'll say this, our scouting reports have been very accurate. They've been very good," said Phillies manager Charlie Manuel.

Longoria isn't alone in his struggles. First baseman Carlos Pena is 0-for-13 with six strikeouts, meaning the Rays' No. 3 and 4 hitters are a combined 0-for-29 with 15 strikeouts. "Their bats are hot," said Pena of the suddenly raking Phillies. "Our bats were hot."

The biggest explanation for the slump, says Maddon, is Longoria's and Pena's willingness to chase those balls that are not only out of the strike zone, but outside their comfort zone as well. Longoria's strikeouts in the fourth and eighth came on breaking pitches away, and as an indication of his likely confusion at the plate, he simply stared at a belt-high fastball in the sixth as it sailed past him for strike three. Pena's strikeout in the fourth came on a changeup low and away.

"From my old hitting coach's days, I can just see what's happening," Maddon said. "Both guys are out of their game right now, in regards to their strike zone. If I preach anything to them, it's not to expand their strike zone, because more often than not, the Phillies are making certain pitches, and they've done a pretty good job. We have to get back into it."

Maddon has earned plenty of praise from the media this month for daring to go against the game's treasured Book, but circumstances may now be calling for a move as drastic as the five-man infield he deployed in the ninth inning of Game 3. With both Pena and Longoria struggling, he may be forced to drop one or both in the batting order. With men on base in the series, Pena and Longoria are a combined 0-for-8 with a pair of run-scoring groundouts in Game 2 that have plated their only RBIs of the series. The Rays can not afford to endure anymore missed opportunities from those two if they are to enjoy the happy flight home tomorrow that Longoria spoke of on Sunday night, to say nothing of the happy ending to their season that seemed a near-certainty when the series shifted to Philadelphia.

"We've got one more game to play," Longoria said, before quickly catching himself. "Actually, three more games." The way things are going for Longoria and the Rays right now, he may have been right the first time.

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