LAKE BUENA VISTA - It you failed to notice, Evan Longoria was in what some would categorize as a mini-slump. And it could not have come at a worse time either.
The rookie third-sacker had just put his John Hancock on what could turn out to be a nine-year, $44 million contract and had but none hit in his next ten at-bats.
Squeezing the bat? Trying too hard to justify the deal?
Au contraire, says Longo and his skipper Joe Maddon.
"I wasn't pressing," said the 22-year old. "I don't even think I was in a slump either. It just so happened that after the contract I didn't get any hits but I felt like I was still locked in at the plate. They were just not finding holes."
The 1-for-10 dropped his season average to .233 and even though and there were whispers, was it too much too soon, the California native did not let the lack of offense get in the way of his defense as he made two sparklers at the hot corner including one that bounced away from him yet stayed with it to throw the runner out by a step.
"If you look at it, and it's my observation, it's been against left-handed pitchers," said Maddon about the right-swinging Longoria. "He had a hard tile against (Mark) Buehrle and (John) Danks. He's been swinging well against the righties. For me I see a good at-bat every time. You talk to him on a daily basis he's the same cat. I just think it's an adjustment he has to make against those pitchers."
As it turned out, there might have been a little pixie dust floating around Champions Stadium Tuesday night as he unloaded a 400+ foot homer over the centerfield wall off former Rays' batboy Jesse Litsch and as magical as a Disney property is, the Rays' #1 pick in the 2006 draft had found it again.
The average slid up to a more respectable .242 and a day later added another point, however, his only hit was key to the Rays second straight win over the Blue Jays when they jumped on former Cy Young winner Roy Halladay for four runs in the sixth, a rarity for that late in a contest.
"We don't know that we're not supposed to do that," said Longoria after the game. "We only know one thing and that's to keep hitting until the end. I can speak for myself, he left the ball up over the plate and I finally got a pitch I could handle."
The Halladay offering was sent the opposite way for a game tying RBI-single and it must have shaken the veteran hurler because he did virtually the same thing when Eric Hinske came up and delivered the go-ahead hit.
Everyone in the Toronto clubhouse raved about the Long Beach State University product with his patience for such a young hitter.
He’s some kind of hitter," said Jays' manager John Gibbons. "We saw him in spring training and he doesn’t try to do too much. He took a single to right which is a sign of a good one."
The consensus is that the size and length of his contract will not affect the youngster and he readily admits he is the same today as he was before his first big league at-bat.
"I always felt like I have to produce whatever situation I'm in under a big contract or not," he said. "I put that pressure on me every time I come to the ballpark. I don't expect results but go out and prepare so I'm not going to have any extra pressure on myself."
Before the series finale at the Disney Wide World of Sports Complex, Maddon put the exclamation point on Longoria's big league career, as short as it is.
"We expected him to live up to expectations," the skipper said. "He's got a real good head on his shoulders. You saw the base hit last night. I saw the replay and it was nice. He (Halladay) had been throwing the sinker on him all night having him ground to third base then takes him to right field which was really a superb piece of hitting.
"Here's a young man just a couple of weeks into his major league experience and he takes Halladay to the opposite field at a crucial moment. That tells you a lot right there. He's fine."
Rays fans can now officially relax.
FELIZ NAVVY: After everything he has been through in is professional and personal life, you would think he would just once say, "Why me?"
That, however, is not in the nature of Rays backstop Dioner Navarro.
His latest tribulation in the trials of life was a freak accident that cut open a couple of fingers as he stumbled into the dugout and grabbing the netting as if to steady himself. Instead, it landed him on the disabled list.
"It was one of those things were everyone was asking, 'What else can happen to you,'" Navarro said. "I just tried to make a joke out if it. The way I see it is that it could have been worse. It could have been my head or my knee and been out a longer time. Now I'm back and I'll keep working and do what I gotta do."
Since his return in rehab, the switch-hitting Venezuelan has been nothing short of being on fire. He is hitting a robust .438, albeit in five games, but had a key hit and run scored Wednesday and the day before 3-4 with 3-RBI in his return from rehab after lighting up the Florida State league.
But don't let those figures mislead you. A lot of it is a direct carryover from last season when he had the third best American League average for catchers after the All-Star break behind only the Yankees' Jorge Posada and the ChiSox' A.J. Pierzynski.
"I never stop working," he said. "Even though my hand was messed up I still got a lot done. I kept doing what I did in spring training. I feel pretty good right now, pretty much the same way I did the second half last year and in the spring. Hopefully when the season is over I can look back and have good stuff to talk about."
Now that would be something around these parts.
FIRST OF ALL: Rays first sacker Carlos Pena has seen his average dip below the old Mendoza Line (.197) and Joe Maddon says that he has been pressing. Tuesday he fanned a team-tying four times, the fourth time he has worn the Golden Sombrero and since April 13 he is hitting just .161 (5-31) with no homers and has 11 K during that stretch.
HOME SWEET HOME? Things will return to normal Friday when the Rays return to Tropicana Field for a 3-game weekend, homestand ending series with the Red Sox. Matt Garza will come off the DL and start Friday with Edwin Jackson and James Shields going Saturday and Sunday, respectively. Of the current roster, Boston is 7-34 against the right-hander (.206). Jackson holds a .226 (19-84) average allowing two homers (Mike Lowell and David Ortiz). The Sox are 18-65 (.277) against Shields with Ortiz going yard twice against the righty and Manny Ramirez chiming in with one.
TWO-FER: Recently the Rays designated a pair of players for assignment and will remain with the organization. Mike DiFelice accepted an outright assignment to Durham while Calvin Medlock cleared waiver and will report to the same club. Another move is expected before Friday's game when Matt Garza is activated from the 15-day disabled list.
DUCAT DOPE: Large crowds are expected this weekend and the rays are asking fans to avoid long lines by purchasing their tickets in advance. They can call 727-898-7297, 813-288-8844 or 407-839-3900 or online at RaysBaseball.com . Saturday the first 10,000 who are wearing Rays gear will receive a Rays Cowbell and Sunday kids under 14 will receive Scott Kazmir Strikeout Swirlers.
MINOR MATTERS (Organizational Record: 35-45, .430)
DURHAM (8-11 - 4th place): The Bulls fell behind early and never recovered Wednesday night at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, falling to the cross-state rival Charlotte Knights by a score of 11-2. The Knights put forth a collective offensive effort, with every member of the starting lineup save Dewayne Wise getting a hit. Leading the charge were Josh Fields (3-for-5, HR, 2 RBI, 2R) and Jeff Liefer, who doubled and had three batted in. Lance Broadway (3-1, 1.29) earned the win in six innings of five-hit, two-run work. Chris Mason (0-3, 5.68) started and gave up five runs in three and two-thirds innings to take the loss. Mike Prochaska came on in relief and gave up two in two and a third, and Steve Andrade allowed four more in an inning, his 2008 Bulls debut. Joel Guzman provided Durham’s offensive highlight with a line drive over the Blue Monster in the fourth inning, his fourth of the year. Jon Weber drove in Alex Jamieson for the other Bulls run with a double in the third. (Matt DeMargel)
MONTGOMERY (7-13 - 4th place): It's five losses in a row for the Biscuits as the Suns burned out an 15-9 victory Wednesday. Mike Wlodarczyk was crunched for 8-runs (6 earned) and 9-hits over 3.1 innings. John Jaso was 2-4 in the losing cause with a triple, homer and two-ribbies. Ronnie Merrill was 4-for-5 driving in three.
VERO BEACH (10-10 - tied for 3rd): Scott Kazmir made his second rehab start for Vero Beach (Class A) working 4.2 innings throwing 64 pitches, striking out four and walking none. He will start once more, at AAA Durham April 28, before being activated either May 3 or 4. The Devil Rays lost the game 4-3. Garrett Groce was 3-for-5 with a pair of two-base hits and Matt Fields recorded his 12th two-bagger in the loss.
COLUMBUS (9-11 tied for 6th): The Catfish floated away with a 5-2 win over the Rome Braves ending a four-game slide. Jason Ragan won his fourth of the year working the front five allowing two runs and six hits. Emeel Salem swiped his league leading 18th base. Cody Cipriano is second in the league in doubles after banging out his 9th.