Before Game 4 of the ALDS on Sunday, Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon was asked about his slumping and hobbling All-Star third baseman, Evan Longoria, who had missed the Rays' final 10 regular-season games with a quad injury and had just one hit in the ALDS while going 0-for-his-last-11.
"The biggest thing about his hitting to this point, I think he has been out of his zone a little bit," said Maddon. "I think he is trying too hard at the plate and trying to do too much and he has been expanding the strike zone. Otherwise I think he looks relatively normal. Overall I would like to see him get back into the strike zone, swing at pitches he likes and not expand. That's what I'm seeing with Longo right now."
What Maddon saw from Longo later that afternoon was exactly what he -- and the rest of the Rays -- had been hoping for, and just what they have been accustomed to seeing from the 25-year-old All-Star for each of his three major league seasons: a dangerous middle-of-the-order bat capable of changing a lineup, a game, and even a postseason series all by himself. With Longoria delivering three key hits, all of them for extra-bases, including his first home run and first two RBIs of the series, the Rays beat the Rangers 5-2 to even the ALDS with Texas at two games apiece and set up a do-or-die Game 5 on Tuesday back in Florida.
Longoria's first hit was a booming drive to left-center in the top of the fourth, an easy stand-up double that was more of a limp-in double, as Longoria, clearly favoring his injured leg, all but walked the 90 feet between first and second. He was able to jog home comfortably when Carlos Pena followed with a double of his own. When he came to the plate again in the fifth, Longoria conjured up images of Octobers past, launching a long two-run homer to left that put the Rays in front 5-0 and virtually ensured the Rays were operating at full speed, even if their star wasn't.
"I kind of felt like Kirk Gibson going around the bases a little bit," Longoria said afterward, recalling one of the more famous and pain-filled home run trots in baseball history. "I know I hit the ball out of the ballpark. I'm not really going to run as hard as I can around the bases."
"He's under strict managerial orders not to run hard -- although he can't run anyway," Maddon said.
When healthy, Longoria is one of the game's best athletes, capable of stealing bases (a career-high 15 this year), playing Gold Glove defense (he won his first such honor last year and has an excellent shot at a second this season) and, of course, hitting for power (averaging a little over 27 home runs and 100 RBIs each season). He spent part of last offseason at the Athletes Performance Institute in Arizona working on a tailor-made exercise and fitness regimen designed to keep him healthy over the course of a grueling 162-game campaign.
It worked for the first 152 games, as Longoria missed just one game before being shut down with the quad injury. Maddon actually wanted to continue to pencil Longoria into his lineup in the season's final week but had to be talked out of it by the team's trainers, who felt the risk of exacerbating the injury was too great to risk playing him, even at DH. Even now, Longoria says he has little idea what is being done to get him ready for each day's game -- "I guess they call them modalities in there. Laser and phono and sound and a bunch of stuff that I don't really comprehend" -- but he and the Rays care less about what is being done than whether it works.
For one more day, at least, it worked fine. With Longoria back to his homer-hitting self, this is a completely different Tampa Bay lineup than the one that mustered just one run in the first two games and was five outs from elimination in Game 3. The Rays scored five runs in the final two innings of Game 3 and five more in Game 4 and head back for Game 5 confident that they are bringing with them an offense that more closely resembles their regular-season performance, when they finished second in the majors in runs scored.
Of course, Texas' starter on Tuesday will have much to say about how long the Rays' renaissance lasts, and in Cliff Lee, the Rangers will have arguably the game's premier postseason pitcher on the mound. Lee was not his typically brilliant self for Texas after coming over in a trade with the Mariners in early July. But with the unhurried effort and casualness of a man slipping on a jacket to bundle up against the dipping temperatures of autumn, Lee in Game 1 provided the layer of warmth and protection the Rangers were expecting when they acquired him. He thoroughly dominated the Rays in Game 1, striking out 10, walking none and allowing just one run on five hits in seven innings of a Texas victory.
The Rangers have still never won a home playoff game and they are, incredibly, still the only major league team that's never won a postseason series. But in Lee they have something they've never had before in any of the previous three postseason elimination games they've faced, all of which they lost to the Yankees back in the late '90s: a bona fide ace in the prime of his career with a glittering postseason resume. Not only is Lee now 5-0 with a 1.52 ERA, 43 strikeouts and six walks in six career playoff starts -- all in the previous two seasons -- he is also at his best on five days of rest in his career, going 36-14 with a 3.30 ERA, compared to 66-47 and 4.11 when starting under all other circumstances.
"This is why we got him, for this type of game," said Rangers manager Ron Washington after Game 4. "And I certainly feel great about what's about to happen when we get to Tampa Bay."
Washington probably feels about as great heading to Florida as Longoria and the Rays do as they leave Texas. After Game 4, Longoria was asked if he felt like the Rays had a 50-50 chance in Game 5, which obviously they do. "No, I feel a little better than 50-50 at this point," he said.
Longoria has good reason to be so optimistic. Only moments earlier he had run off the field in Arlington, heading for a Game 5 few imagined would be played just days earlier, when the Rays dropped the first two games at home. His batting stroke, his team's chances, and for the moment, his bothersome leg, seemed to be the picture of perfect health. In fact, if there was any pain at all in the leg at that moment, he didn't show it. The grimace he had worn for the first five days of this series had finally vanished, turned into something much more familiar: a smile.