State of the Rays: Evan Longoria's health crucial
JUL 01, 2013 1:33p ET
TAMPA, Fla. — At any given moment, the Tampa Bay Rays’ hopes for reaching the postseason rest with Evan Longoria’s health. This is neither a surprise nor a revelation, but it is wise to keep in mind how one player — a three-time All-Star; a two-time Gold Glove winner; a recipient of a six-year, $100 million contract extension last November — can dictate a franchise’s direction as it attempts to survive in the deep American League East.
Because of this reality, June meant a month of tracking Longoria’s right foot, which proves that no body part is too minor when discussing the Rays’ superstar. His plantar fasciitis condition, though painful (manager Joe Maddon described it as “like a nail at the bottom of your foot”), is not viewed as threatening as the partially torn left hamstring sustained last year that limited his availability and likely cost Tampa Bay a chance to clinch its fourth playoff berth in five seasons.
Still, concerns about Longoria’s health are clear worries for Tampa Bay. Remember, the Rays went 41-44 in contests he missed last season with the hamstring injury, and by finishing 90-72, they closed three games behind the Baltimore Orioles and Texas Rangers for wild-card spots. In that stat alone, Longoria’s value is understood.
There is a reason Longoria received a rich, long-term commitment from the Rays in the offseason. Without him, the centerpiece of their strategy, the heart of their outlook, is absent.
“He actually felt pretty good today,” Maddon said when asked Sunday about Longoria’s progress, two days after the player went home early following the irritation of the condition in a run to first base. “Kind of encouraging. He said a lot of the pain was different, wasn’t nearly as severe. We’ll see.”
When it comes to Longoria, a watch-and-wait approach is where the Rays stand now. Games Saturday and Sunday against the Detroit Tigers were the first two all season the third baseman had not served in at least a designated-hitter role.
On Saturday, he expressed frustration about missing time, which is not a surprise given his role as a leader and his history as someone who has risen as one of the game’s most effective infielders. He knows the importance of his presence on the field, as a stabilizing figure as well as a productive one. He understands the more time he misses the more questions will come.
“I’ve been lucky enough to go out there as many days as I have in a row with it not having gotten as bad as it got yesterday,” Longoria said then. “I was happy to be able to play up until that point. And expecting it to get more sore gives me a little bit peace of mind in knowing that it will go away after it’s done.”
Currently, the Rays are absent the visible benefits that Longoria provides: His .298 batting average, his team-high 17 home runs, his team-high 47 RBI. But as expected with a player of his status, he holds invisible attributes that can raise a club: Leadership; confidence; and an edge that is noticeable, especially when it is gone.
“He just brings a mind-set that’s hard to replace, hard to duplicate,” Rays infielder/outfielder Sean Rodriguez said.
“Whatever he does is going to fuel this team, lead this team. It’s tough seeing him go down. But we see it as, ‘All right, next guy up.’ The beauty of it is we know it’s something that’s not going to keep him out for a while. We know it has been lingering, but he has been able to play through it.”
Part of that “next-guy up” mentality is seen in Kelly Johnson’s play. The Rays’ Mr. Versatile has done a fine job at third base in Longoria’s absence, a performance highlighted by two stops against Miguel Cabrera on Sunday that resulted in an inning-ending double play in the first and a sharp line out in the eighth.
That is an encouraging sign, as is Tampa Bay’s two victories over Detroit with Longoria out of the lineup. Still, the Rays clearly do not wish his absence to be prolonged, and he remains a day-to-day case.
The disabled list is an option, though Maddon said, “As of now, I don’t think so,” when asked Sunday about Longoria. The sooner the Rays’ star returns, the better for his team — both for reasons visible and unseen.
Right-hander Jeremy Hellickson has had his share of arrows slung his way. He has received pointed criticism from manager Joe Maddon, answered questions about squandering leads and became a face of a rotation that has underwhelmed at times.
However, June became a month of vindication for him. In six starts, he went 5-1 and earned a 3.53 ERA — the lowest total among Rays starters with at least five appearances (right-hander Chris Archer was closest with a 4.40 ERA in six June starts).
Hellickson looked like a different pitcher, and more confident, than the one who labored through a turbulent May in which he had a 6.69 ERA in six starts. Aside from a forgettable loss to the Kansas City Royals on June 13, when he allowed eight runs and 10 hits in 5 2/3 innings, May’s misery gave way to a kinder stretch for him.
Games Saturday and Sunday between the Rays and Detroit Tigers could have filled a soap opera block. Of course, tension began Saturday in the 10th inning with closer Fernando Rodney’s high-and-inside fastball near Detroit star Miguel Cabrera, an action that drew the ire of Tigers manager Jim Leyland.
Leyland overreacted in saying, “We will not tolerate that. You can take that to the bank." But it was a question of “Who will get plunked?” not “Will it happen?” when Tigers right-hander Rick Porcello took the mound Sunday.
The bluster between the clubhouses made for dramatic viewing, but there was too much hot air. Yes, baseball is baseball and, yes, managers will defend their superstars when they deem it appropriate. But it is wise to remember that only one person was hit in this tit-for-tat, and his name isn’t Cabrera.
Quotes of the week
“It’s going to be good to get out there and face major-league hitters in a major-league game. It has been quite a while.”
— Left-hander David Price, speaking last Friday about his upcoming return from the disabled list, scheduled for Tuesday against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park. The reigning American League Cy Young Award winner has been on the disabled list with a left triceps strain since May 16.
“He’s the kind of hitter who tries to play with your mind. … If it happened tonight, it would be the same.”
— Closer Fernando Rodney, on the Detroit Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera, speaking Sunday about an incident Saturday at Tropicana Field that included a brush back of Cabrera at home plate with a high-and-inside fastball in the 10th inning of the Rays' 4-3 victory. Rodney went on to strike out Cabrera with a changeup.
“The rays were in danger. He could have gotten a phone call or a letter from some activist group, I’m sure. It was a helium ball. An absolute helium ball.”
— Manager Joe Maddon, on Cabrera, after the Tigers’ star hit a 424-foot solo home run into the Rays Touch Tank behind the right-center wall at Tropicana Field in the Rays’ 3-1 victory Sunday. The home run was the second to splash down in the 35-foot, 10,000-gallon tank, which opened in 2006 (the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Luis Gonzalez was the first on June 24, 2007).
5: Victories by right-hander Jeremy Hellickson in June, tying a franchise record for wins in a calendar month. He joins left-handers Matt Moore (April 2013), David Price (June 2012) and Scott Kazmir (May 2008) as the only other Rays pitchers to achieve the feat.
2.34: ERA owned by the Rays’ bullpen since May 27. In a span of 33 games, the bullpen has earned 126 strikeouts and a .182 opponent batting average, totals that lead the majors in both categories. Tampa Bay’s bullpen ERA has improved from a major-league-worst 4.96 to 3.75.
4-2: Rays’ record in their most recent homestand, which included visits by the Toronto Blue Jays and Detroit Tigers. Tampa Bay improved to 23-15 outside the American League East and 20-24 within the division. The Rays’ next 14 pre-All-Star break games are against opponents with losing records: Houston Astros (30-52), Chicago White Sox (32-47) and Minnesota Twins (36-42).
Tweet of the week
Let the Accidental Preppie Trip to Houston begin! pic.twitter.com/iDYvFacpiv— Joe Maddon (@RaysJoeMaddon) June 30, 2013
OK, so we know that manager Joe Maddon is a renaissance man. He likes talking books, bikes and fine wine (notice the collection to the right in the photo above). So it should be no surprise that he is comfortable and creative enough to organize an “accidental preppie” road trip to Houston.
Does it look a little wild? Perhaps. Does it seem different? Absolutely.
But that is Maddon. Those are the Rays.
He said he receives a preppie vibe from Houston — you make your own judgments about the Space City – but add another memorable moment to a season where camo and a cockatoo, penguins and a four-member merengue band, among many interesting sights, have been part of the experience.
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