Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 2/27/12
PORT CHARLOTTE He wears his hair in a buzz cut these days. And thats only fitting considering the buzz overhead of Tampa Bay Rays star third baseman Evan Longoria not to mention the team as whole. After an injury-plagued 2011 season, Longoria is feeling rejuvenated these days following offseason foot surgery and a training regimen thats given him added strength and flexibility without the added bulk he carried last year. Thats especially good news for the Rays, considering their marquee offensive and defensive star lost a month of play right out of the box last season with an oblique strain and then had to battle through the constant pain caused by a nerve injury in his left foot. Even with those obstacles, he still managed to stage a furious comeback and finish as one of the best players in baseball during the second half of the season. From June 11 on, he led the majors with 86 RBI and was second in homers with 27. Remarkably, 13 of them came in the final 41 games of the season, and the final two came in the miraculous comeback of Game 162, when the Rays wiped out a 7-0 deficit and beat the Yankees with Longorias game-winning homer in the bottom of the 11th to edge Boston out for the Wild Card spot. Imagine what a healthy Longo might achieve in this, his fifth big-league season, after finishing with a career-low batting average of .244 in 11? Plenty of people are doing just that, with a prevailing sense that the 26-year-old from Southern California could be poised for his best season yet. So what does a player already regarded as one of the games best third basemen and most recognizable stars have to say about it? I dont think about it, Longoria told a crowd of reporters prior to the first full-squad workout Sunday. I try to focus on what I can control. I thought I prepared myself as best I could last year, and two days in I was on the shelf. There are certain things I cant control, but the one thing I can control is how I go about my preparation on a day-to-day basis and being as ready and prepared to play as a I can. That being said, I feel great, and if I keep myself healthy the whole year, Im pretty confident that its going to be a pretty good one. You never know, but Im excited about it, and Im excited to be healthy and thats the biggest thing for me. His routine in the offseason included yoga and plyometrics (muscle stretching and jumping moves to enhance explosiveness) and that helped him shed 10-15 pounds in preparation for spring training, weighing in at about 212. I feel great, he said. I think this is the first year Ive actually come in and felt like Im at the right weight. Its always a learning process and it takes time. This year, above all, I feel top-to-bottom really good. Manager Joe Maddon likes what hes seen so far in camp. Im just watching him already taking his ground balls, he said. You can see theres no restriction at all. He feels good. The fluidness is there. I think thats a very big positive for us, and maybe dangerous for the rest of the league. When you talk to him, the confidence is soaring and probably a lot of it has to do with the fact that he does feel (good). When an athlete is hurt, they can try to mask it as much as they want, but theres still something missing. I can see the bounce in his step and I know the look hes feeling pretty good about himself. And I know hes feeling good about where were at as a group. The Rays are being touted nationally as a potential World Series contender, in large part due to the strength of the starting pitch staff, but also tied to the increased power provided by the return of Carlos Pena at first and the acquisition of former Baltimore slugger Luke Scott, the teams new DH. Of course, the predictions are also rooted in the potential contributions of Longoria, a player who is in elite company after four seasons with more than 100 homers (113) and 400 RBI (401), joining active stars as Ryan Braun (128420), Mark Teixeira (140450), Miguel Cabrera (122439), and Albert Pujols (160504). On the list of third basemen in their first four seasons, his 147 doubles and 401 RBI rank second only to Pinky Whitney's 155 and 409 totals, and his 268 extra-base hits are second only to Eddie Matthewss 273. But he and his teammates are taking the expectations in stride. I dont think the expectations weigh too heavily on us, he said. Obviously, we talk about everywhere of having the expectation of playing in the postseason, because thats what we come to spring training for. Thats what we play this game for. The expectation internally is the same: to get back to where we were last year and continue to grow from that and go further. But I dont think theres any added pressure or undue pressure for us right now. Longoria had similar high expectations a year ago, but the bottom fell out right from the start: A miserable 0-6, 1-8 start for the Rays, the stunning retirement of DH Manny Ramirez after the first week of play and the oblique injury that caused Longoria to miss 26 games in all. It was tough to watch the first couple of weeks of what we went through, he said. And then it got a little bit easier as we started to play better. But with that comes the anxiousness and anxiety of getting back on the field and being healthy. The first half was a learning process and a struggle for me to figure out what I needed to do to get right, and thankfully I hit a little bit of my stride later in the season and at the right time. A lot of what I do, a lot of what this team does, if Im hitting in the middle of the lineup, is going to be predicated on how I perform. And so I try not to put that huge amount of pressure on myself, but of course Ive got to go out and put some sort of pressure on myself to produce." Still, Longoria says he doesnt spend any time dwelling on comments that describe him as one of the games best third basemen, if not the best. I try to tune it out, he said. For as many people who say Im the best, there are as many who say Im a pile of dirt. So it is what is, and you have to take the good with the bad. I try not to read the newspapers or the Internet or (listen to) what people are saying; just really focus on what I can control. That has been really whats kept me grounded: just worrying about what I can do to make myself a better player, and try not to worry about what everybody else says. What Longoria says, however, is telling when it comes to the prospects of the 2012 Rays. On the pitching rotation: I think right now weve got eight guys who could be big-league starters, so its a good problem to have and to have the stability within the top three guys (James Shields, David Price and Jeremy Hellickson) is huge. And Matt (Moore) showing what hes able to do last year, hes primed for a great year himself. Its going to be exciting to see what develops throughout spring training. On the offense: Offensively, I think we are as solid and put-together a group as weve had. Theres always been in past years the question factor: Is this guy going to do what we expect him to do? With Luke, his health (recovering from offseason shoulder surgery) is going to be a concern. But with Carlos, we know what he can do, and hes continued to do that throughout his career. And on the transformation of the Rays he has witnessed since his All-Star rookie season of 2008: Ill just go back to 2006 when I was drafted. I really didnt know who the Rays were. Obviously, they were kind of the doormat for the AL East for their entire existence. For me to be able to come up in 2008 and have that very special season we had then, and then continually see it transform from year to year and us bring in players but pretty much keep the same general goal when we come to spring training and then fulfill that goal has been neat. So is life in the spotlight. Longoria has been seen out and about with his girlfriend, Playboy model Jaime Edmondson. Hes enjoying a high profile as a pitchman for New Era hats, Pepsi, MLB2K10 (as the cover guy) and an Internet Gillette commercial that made it appear as if he saved a female sideline reporter from being struck by a ball, casually back-handing a screaming liner with his bare hand (it was fake, but the YouTube video has generated nearly 6.5 million views). His commercial work no doubt makes up a bit for that eight-year contract Longoria signed as a rookie, locking him up at well-below-market value through his option year of 2016 (finishing up at 11.5-million). Thats what prompted Longoria to talk recently about one day breaking the bank in an interview with MLB Network host Kevin Millar, who asked him about his long-term deal. "I can honestly say that Ive never regretted doing it, he told Millar on Intentional Talk. I can look at myself in the mirror and say that I made the right decision. You never know, who knows, one or two years in I mightve hurt myself and not been the player that I am today. "Regardless of all that stuff from the outside looking in, I look at it now as, to this point Ive lived up to my contract and now, you know, my goal is to outplay it so that when it comes time for me to be a free agent, Ill be 29, 30 years old. And so thats the time when you start thinking about breaking the bank. For now, life is good for Longoria and perhaps on the verge of getting even better come baseball season. You certainly cant beat the perks, such as one he mentioned Sunday stemming from his Game 162 heroics. On a recent trip to New York City, he was waiting for a table at a popular eatery, Mario Batali Eataly. The wait was 90 minutes when Longoria put his name in. But five minutes later, he and his party were seated New Yorkers never forget a guy who makes life miserable for the hated Red Sox, as Longoria did in the final night of the regular season with his two home runs. They actually grabbed me and sat me down, he said, smiling. It was pretty crazy how one event can shape something in a city. Not to mention further shaping an already stellar career, one that could well be on the verge of something special in 2012.
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