Longoria's hat trick a sign of what could have been
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PETERSBURG -- Say this for Evan Longoria: The man knows how to put on a show in Game 162.
Longoria's performance in this year's season finale may not have meant as much from a team perspective, as the Rays had been eliminated from playoff contention on Monday, but it might have been equally impressive on a personal level.
And, on a bittersweet note, it showed Tampa Bay what might have been had its star third baseman remained healthy all year.
The hero of Tampa Bay's dramatic comeback in 2011, the star of one of the most memorable days in recent baseball history, bashed three homers against the Orioles in the Rays' 4-1 win at Tropicana Field on Wednesday night.
"I was thinking about hitting three. That was my plan the whole time," Longoria said, sarcastically. "It was cool. That's about as fun a night as you can have in a baseball game."
Longoria tied the team record for the second time, a mark he shares with Jonny Gomes (July 30, 2005) and B.J. Upton, who drilled three this past Sept. 9 against the Rangers at Tropicana Field. Longoria last accomplished the feat on Sept. 18, 2008, in his rookie season, against the Twins.
Longoria got right to work in the first inning, crushing a first-pitch fastball from Orioles right-hander Chris Tillman into the left-field stands, his 15th homer in a season plagued by a hamstring injury that forced him to miss 85 games from late April until early August.
Much of the Rays' slide from the top of the American League East can be attributed to the time Longoria spent on the disabled list, as their defense scuffled and their offense sputtered to a 41-44 record without him, despite their stellar pitching.
"If you want to grasp on to one thought, that would be it. Because it's obvious. That's so obvious," manager Joe Maddon said. "That is so obvious you can't even try to deflect that in any way, shape or form. That is that obvious. But it wasn't to be."
Maddon estimated that Longoria's absence cost the club three or four wins and, most likely, a playoff spot. Luke Scott figured that the Rays and their elite pitching staff would have won 100 games with a healthy Longoria.
But as disappointed as he was to see the Rays' season end without so much as one playoff game, Longoria wouldn't allow himself to think that way.
"That's not fair. It's not fair to say, because the guys that are in here played as hard as they could the whole year," he said. "You've got to give credit to them for keeping us where we were. Who knows how my year goes? Do I think that I would feel better going home right now knowing I played 100-whatever games and gave us a chance? Yeah, definitely. But I don't know. I can't predict that.
"I can't stand here and not be humble and say, 'Yeah, we'd be in with 95 wins.' I can't say that."
Wednesday's game was just another example of what the Rays might have been with their star third baseman. Longoria worked a full count against Tillman in the fourth inning before sending his second homer to left field, this one a towering shot off an 83-mph changeup. He ran up another full count in the sixth against Jake Arrieta, watching five pitches go by before sending a 90-mph slider over a leaping Adam Jones and the center-field fence 404 feet away.
James Shields, who took a 1-0 loss on Tuesday despite a brilliant pitching performance, pulled Longoria aside and jokingly asked him why he couldn't have done that a night earlier.
Longoria fell short of making history, however, grounding out to third base for the final out of the eighth inning and missing a chance to become the 15th player to record a four-homer game.
When Longoria hit his third homer, he didn't dramatically alter the playoff picture or triumphantly raise his hands as he ran toward first base, the way he did with last year's walk-off homer. There was no mob awaiting him at home plate or an unexpected postseason series on the horizon, either. But what Longoria did on Wednesday night will, at the very least, make opposing teams worry about pitching to him come Game 162 in 2013.
"Longo's definitely a great player," starter Jeremy Hellickson said. "But in Game 162, he's something else."