Evan Longoria was coming to the plate, and if he delivered again the game would be tied. Or so we thought. Ben Zobrist was called out by Marty Foster on the infamous third strike call and what could have been a great Rays comeback ended prematurely as they lost 5-4. The Rays seemed like they were about to win the game. In the 9th inning versus Rangers closer Joe Nathan, Jose Molina and Sean Rodriguez improbably delivered singles, with Molina even stealing a base (!), and magic was in the air as what was a frustrating game for the Rays for the first 7 innings suddenly was going right down to the wire. Longoria entered the 9th already 3 for 3 with 3 singles and a walk in the game, and one more hit would mean a tie game. But we’ll never know what would have happened, whether Longoria’s great day would become one that would be remembered for a long time or Nathan would come back when it mattered most and retire Longoria to send the Rangers to the win. Everyone watching was robbed of the moments every baseball fan lives for and even Rangers fans had to be wondering what in the world had happened when Foster made his third strike call. At this point, though, there’s nothing we can do. Zobrist was called out, Longoria never batted, and the Rangers won 5-4. One thing we can do is talk about the rest of Longoria’s day.
Evan Longoria has been great for the Rays so far this season, going 10 for 24 (.417). The crazy thing, though, is that all of Longoria’s hits have been singles. On Monday, he looked much less like a slugger and more like say Ichiro Suzuki in his prime, facing a two-strike count in his final three plate appearances but shortening up his swing and delivering line drive singles to right field, centerfield, and left field. It shows how great of a hitter Longoria is that he can fall behind in the count and do something like that with such success, but how is it possible that Longoria’s power has been completely non-existent in this season’s first 7 games even as he has been hitting well? Has he ever done anything like this before? As it turns out, yes.
Longoria’s start to this season marks the 4th time in his career that he has managed a streak of 6 or more games where he managed a batting average of .280 or higher but not a single extra base hit. The other three were one each in the 2008, 2009, and 2010 seasons. Longoria has shown this ability before to shorten up on his swing and remain productive even when he’s not hitting for power. Longoria usually hits for power by seeing the ball well to find pitches to hit and getting good timing on his unorthodox swing. But so far this season, neither of those may truly be the case for Longoria. It took Longoria until the 5th game of the season to finally draw his first walk. That may not seem to have a correlation with Longoria hitting for power, but walks and power often come hand and hand because seeing the ball well allows hitters to lay off pitches out of the zone and take advantage of pitches to hit. Longoria has now drawn walks in each of his last 3 games, and with the walks coming now, maybe the power is soon on the way. But we saw Longoria go outside the zone on Monday, fishing for pitcher’s pitches but impressively still hitting the ball on a line and racking up hits. Longoria isn’t going to really start hitting for the power we’re used to seeing from him, though, until he finds mistake pitches within the zone, and that still isn’t happening at this point.
In terms of Longoria’s timing, it says a lot that 6 of his 10 hits have come with two strikes. Longoria’s swing has him basically stand upright in the back of the batter’s box before striding forward, and that can lead to Longoria struggling mightily when his timing isn’t right. Longoria is going to have to keep working hard to try to get his swing going well, but for now, Longoria’s timing has been great when he has shortened up his swing, and when Longoria is hitting .417 without his best swing, that isn’t too shabby at all. Longoria is unlikely to keep hitting is average even remotely near this high without hitting the ball with a little more authority and delivering extra base hits. However, he’s more than treading water without his best approach and best swing, and it tells you everything you need to know about Longoria as a baseball player that he’s willing to get off his game as a power hitter and do whatever it takes to help the Rays win.
It’s interesting that these streaks of 6 or more games with an average of .280 or higher and no extra-base hits occurred in 2008, 2009, and 2010 but not the last two years. Any significance to that? Correlation doesn’t apply causation, but it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that from 2008 to 2010, Longoria was playing alongside players like Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena at their best and was far from the Rays’ only formidable hitter. Knowing that he didn’t have to do everything, maybe Longoria was more willing to adjust his approach and limit his power when he wasn’t right at the plate. In 2011 and 2012, though, Longoria was the heart and soul of the Rays and without him, the Rays’ offense was an unqualified disaster. We can remember in 2011 when Longoria kept swinging for the fences even though he was dealing with an ankle injury and struggle to hit for the power he had displayed previously, and the results were disastrous as he managed just a .236 average from May to July of that remember. This season, though, Longoria realizes as much as ever that even if the Rays’ offense is only churning in all cylinders when they’re hitting and hitting for power, they need whatever he can give them and him pressing and struggles only makes things worse. Longoria willing to shorten up his swing is a sign of his maturity at the plate and as the leader of this Rays team.
This has been strange start to 2012 for Evan Longoria, but no one could possibly complain when he’s hitting .417. He’s been willing to stay calm even with his swing and approach at the plate not where he wants them to be and adjust his game to help the team win. Longoria playing like this when he’s not at his best elucidates just how good of a hitter he is, and the Rays’ opponents have to be shaking in their boots for when Longoria finds himself at the plate and adds power to his already unbelievable performance so far this season.