Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 5/1/12
ST. PETERSBURG So now what? Just when everything seemed to be clicking on all cylinders for the Tampa Bay Rays, the monkey-wrench-in-the-engine news hit late Tuesday afternoon: Evan Longoria is out for six-to-eight weeks with a partial tear in his left hamstring. One moment he was sprinting toward second on an attempted steal Monday night, the next he was standing outside the clubhouse Tuesday prior to game-time, reflecting on the injury to a crowd of reporters with a succinct. "I think it sucks." This definitely didn't appear to be in the script, not after the 2011 season in which the Rays' star third baseman and offensive leader spent most of the first month on the DL with a tear in his right oblique and played with a painful foot condition later. Not after his rigorous off-season training regimen, dropping 15 pounds and increasing his flexibility with the help of yoga, plyometrics and stretching. And certainly not after the way he began this year. The only tear to speak of was the one Longoria has been on hitting .329 (27-for-82) with four homers, seven doubles and 19 RBI, and precisely the kind of muscle the Rays have needed in the middle of their revamped power lineup. Now there's the tear in his hamstring one that comes just as the Rays are in a full sprint themselves. They lead the AL East at 16-8 with nine victories in their last 10 outings (and seven straight at the Trop) after a 3-1 victory over Seattle Tuesday night before a small but loud crowd of 9,972. Their first order of business prior to game time against the Mariners was to place Longoria on the 15-day disabled list, while promoting former Tigers infielder Will Rhymes from Triple-A Durham to the active roster. To make room for Rhymes on the 40-man roster, last season's de facto closer, Kyle Farnsworth, was transferred from the 15-day DL to the 60-day DL. On any other day, the Tuesday evening announcement that Durham shortstop Tim Beckham had been suspended for 50 games for his second violation of the minor league substance abuse policy would have taken center stage. But the revelation about the Rays' 2008 No. 1 draft pick was virtually lost in the shuffle. On any other day, the introductory press conference Tuesday morning of Japanese slugger and former Yankees standout Hideki Matsui, who signed a minor league deal with the Rays, would have dominated the news. But that development aside from the fact that the morning event drew some 50 members of the Japanese media took a back seat to the loss of Longoria for some two months. If the Rays can take solace in anything, however, it's this simple fact: They've been down this road before and survived the journey with some startling success. Their Cinderella season of 2008 leading to the World Series was jeopardized by an array of injuries to key players: first baseman Carlos Pena, shortstop Jason Bartlett, leftfielder Carl Crawford, closer Troy Percival and Longoria, too. But backups like Willy Aybar, Eric Hinske and Dan Johnson stepped up to fill the void along the way. Then there was the disastrous 0-61-8 start last year. When controversial veteran Manny Ramirez retired one week into the season, followed quickly by the loss of Longoria, the Rays appeared to be caught in a death spiral. But Ramirez' abrupt departure from the game paved the way for the arrival of left-fielder Sam Fuld, who became an instant hit with his spectacular defense. Meanwhile, doors opened in the lineup for first baseman Casey Kotchman and third baseman Felipe Lopez each promoted from Durham with Sean Rodriguez helping fill the void at third as well. Somehow, manager Joe Maddon patched together a lineup that managed to overcome its horrendous start without Longo or long-gone Manny and the rest was history. With Longoria enjoying a torrid second-half of the season, the Rays made their historic September run from nine games down into the post-season. None of the above means the path ahead will be a smooth for Maddon and Co. But the fact that they have succeeded in the face of adversity and specifically, without the formidable services of Longoria should give them some confidence that they can do it again. The may not have a set backup for him, but the backup plan seems to have a rhyme and reason to it, or at least a Rhymes. The 29-year-old second baseman hit .283 in two seasons with the Detroit Tigers and is a more intriguing call-up than a return to the parent club by weak-hitting shortstop Reid Brignac. The lefthanded-hitting Rhymes didn't exactly rip it up last year in his sophomore season, hitting .235 (20-for-85) before being optioned to Toledo. But he hit .304 as a rookie (58-for-191) and gives Maddon another option at second. In some cases, it could allow him to move platooning second baseman Jeff Keppinger to third base, while playing part-time second baseman Ben Zobrist in his other home right field. Just as likely is that Rhymes, who played a little at third and short during spring training, would simply add depth coming off the bench in pinch-hit or pinch-run situations. One thing you can count on is Maddon mixing and matching with multiple moving parts to get through. That could mean, depending on the night and the pitching matchup, a time-share at third with Elliot Johnson (who started Tuesday night) and Keppinger. It's less likely that Rodriguez would fill in there, since he's been playing well defensively at shortstop. From a purely defensive standpoint, the Rays' most likely formation would be Johnson at third, Rodriguez at short and Zobrist at second. The down side is how vulnerable that that leaves the Rays offensively on the left side of the infield. Johnson hit .189 last season and entered Tuesday night's game at .182 (4-for-22). Rodriguez hit .227 last year and came into the contest batting .190 (12-for-63). That's where losing Longoria's offensive punch with a batting average some 145 points higher than Johnson will truly be felt. To compensate, one key will be to continue to get strong pitching from the Rays' acclaimed rotation, which has started to live up to its billing after a slow start. Another will be to get continued offensive production from other power players in the lineup, such as Matt Joyce (whose hot streak continued Tuesday night with his sixth homer of the season and a triple), Carlos Pena, Luke Scott, Zobrist, newly acquired Brandon Allen and, perhaps sometime soon, Matsui. How will Maddon configure his lineup on a nightly basis? "It depends on who's pitching for the other team," he said. "We're still going to work off our data of information. You might see more flexibility in the lineup from now on based on Longo not being in there." Maddon likened it to his preference of not naming an official closer, even though Farnsworth excelled in that role last season and Fernando Rodney is doing the same this season without the title (picking up his eighth save in eight attempts Tuesday). "Just as we don't have a closer, we don't have an automatic No. 3 hitter, either," he said. Maddon expressed faith in his players to rise to the occasion, as they've done in the past. "We missed Longo for the first month of last year and Felipe Lopez did a great job," he said. "All of a sudden, you saw Sam Fuld become a folk hero. I mean there are different people who can all of a sudden show up and pick up that slack. And if you give guys opportunity, that may happen again." He points to Allen, who drew a pressure-packed, pinch-hit walk to push home the winning run in a 3-2 win over the Angels, and the next day rip a walk-off pinch-hit homer in a 4-3 victory. And he mentioned how Johnson subbing Monday night for Longoria came back after three difficult at-bats and slapped a walk-off single for a 3-2 triumph in 12 innings. "I like giving guys opportunities," he said. "Guys like Brandon Allen, who have tremendous up side to them. Sometimes it's just about opportunity and it's also sometimes about people showing confidence in you, and then all of a sudden you become this player you can be. Elliot coming up with that hit after some tough at- bats is also pretty much reminiscent of what we do." Vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman acknowledges the challenge the Rays will face without its anchor. But he's buoyed by the past. "It's not a great situation from a team standpoint that being said, I was walking down here and thinking about 2008," he remarked. "Every single one of our position players with the exception of Aki (Iwamura) went on the DL and (so many) different guys who stepped up. "That's what we focused on in the last off-season the depth that we have and the players that we have. So while it's certainly not ideal, I'm excited and anxious to see who's going to step up and who's going to do for us what some of those guys did in 2008. We're still a really good team. And it's something that we're going to have to be that much better defensively. We're going to be that much better with our execution on the base paths. Our pitching is going to be very good. We're going to score runs. We do have a lot of talent that should allow us to still win a lot of games." For his part, Longoria will do his best to rehab and keep a upbeat outlook. "I don't know what the timetable is," he said. "I've been in similar situations before and it's just one of those things. My job now is just to stay positive." He expressed complete confidence in his team to carry on without him for now. "I'm very confident I have no doubts that the team is going to be okay," he said. "I've been on both sides. We've lost guys and other guys have had to step up. So I don't have any doubts about their willpower or about their ability to step up. And I definitely don't feel like they're going to fold up the tent. We have a long way to go and we have a really good thing going right now." Now comes the challenge of trying to keep it rolling, with the engine missing its most important part.
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