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Longo adds to long list of game-changing hits

Rays star erases three-run deficit with dramatic three-run shot off Buchholz

ST. PETERSBURG -- Didn't it have to be Evan Longoria? If the Rays were going to at least try to turn the tide in an American League Division Series the Red Sox had been dominating, didn't it have to start with the guy who's made some of the biggest plays in franchise history?

Catcher Jose Lobaton was no doubt the story on Monday night, as he hit the walk-off solo shot off of seemingly unhittable Red Sox closer Koji Uehara in the Rays' 5-4 win in Game 3 at Tropicana Field.

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But there was also Longoria, the birthday boy and the franchise player, once again playing the role of hero in the fifth inning with a game-tying three-run blast to left field off Boston's Clay Buchholz, who hadn't given up a run to the Rays all season.

"We cannot do anything with him. We get some guys on base, he would make a pitch, and then finally Longo got it, finally Longo got him," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "And all of a sudden it's a different world. ... You've come to expect that from him."

And in a way, this is what Longoria has come to demand of himself. He's the one who hit the famous home run in Game 162 against the Yankees to send the Rays to the postseason in 2011, and the one before that to make the game close. He's the one the Rays invested in for the long haul after watching so many other stars come and go through free agency or trades. And he's the one the Rays look to when they need a spark -- or, as Maddon put it, someone to "push our boulders around."

"Everybody wants to come through. I understand the commitment they made to me and the commitment that I decided to make to the organization, and I definitely stick by that. I love being here," Longoria said. "For as many times as I'm able to come through in those moments right there, that's why I'm here. And that's, I think, hopefully, what the fan base expects out of me. And in turn, I expect it out of myself."

The Rays needed to start pushing that boulder in this uphill battle they're facing against the Red Sox. They could feel the momentum swinging dramatically in Boston's favor after the Red Sox jumped out to a 3-0 lead. Buchholz was dealing, "getting in kind of a groove there," Rays starter Alex Cobb said, and all that waited behind him was a dominant Red Sox bullpen.

So with two outs and runners on second and third in the fifth, Longoria came to the plate. He was mad about his previous at-bat, a strikeout looking, because he missed a first-pitch cutter, then swung at a fastball before Buchholz made a "really good pitch in that spot," a changeup up in the zone, to finish off Longoria.

Longoria said he wasn't thinking about that changeup when he stepped in the box in the fifth. He was just trying to hit the ball up the middle and score a run or two. Instead, he got another changeup, this time down and in on the second pitch and got just enough of the pitch to send it down the left-field line and into a sea of screaming fans.

"Longo has been the boulder pusher around here. Every time things seem bleak offensively, he's picked us up," Maddon said. "We needed that badly, there's no denying it. Among the group, everybody is going to look for that guy to lead you, and he did and he put us back in the race."

"It shifted all the momentum they had in that dugout and put it right in ours," Cobb said. "It was just a sign of things to come, obviously, but the guy just thrives in this situation. There's nobody else you'd rather have that up."

All this on the day Longoria turned 28, making him just the second player to ever hit a postseason home run on his birthday. The other was Kansas City's Willie Mays Aikens, who actually hit two homers on his 26th birthday on Oct. 14, 1980.

"I think any time you're playing in October and your birthday is in October, it's a pretty good birthday in itself," Longoria said. "I wanted to play a good, solid team game, overall, and be able to come out on top. And just to be able to come through in that moment makes it all the more special."

All the more special, perhaps, but certainly not surprising to anyone in the Rays clubhouse.

"It had to be him," Cobb said. "Writers couldn't come up with anything better than that."

Game 4 is at 8:30 p.m. ET Tuesday night on TBS.

Adam Berry is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry.

Tampa Bay Rays, Evan Longoria