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Longoria delivers when it matters most

Third baseman consistently comes through in regular-season finales

ARLINGTON -- It didn't really make much sense, given all the pressure and the workload and the itinerary, but Evan Longoria woke up Monday morning feeling better than ever.

"For some reason, I just felt like I wasn't done playing baseball yet this year," he said. "For whatever reason, I woke up feeling really good; my body felt as good as it's felt all year."

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The fact that it came on the morning of the biggest game of the Rays' season, the tiebreaker at Rangers Ballpark for the right to advance to Wednesday's Wild Card Game in Cleveland (8 p.m. ET on TBS), may not have been a coincidence.

And the fact he continued his inexplicable dominance in regular-season finales, many in a celebratory Rays clubhouse believe, is no statistical anomaly.

"He's just able to slow the game down," Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said after a 5-2, champagne-soaked win. "It feels like the more people that are watching him, the better able he is to slow the game down and breathe in the moment and perform."

David Price carried the way with a complete game, but it was Longoria who set the tone in the 163rd game of the season. He went 3-for-4 with a walk, finished a triple shy of the cycle and passed Hall of Famer Stan Musial for the most home runs in the final game of a regular season.

"That's why he is who he is," Price said. "He steps up for us whenever we need him most."

In five regular-season finales, Longoria is 11-for-19 with 10 RBIs, eight runs scored and a record-breaking seven homers.

Three of them came against the Orioles last year, putting a positive end to an injury-plagued season that saw the Rays finish three games shy of a final playoff spot.

And one of them is among the most memorable in franchise history.

It came on Sept. 28, 2011, the second of two in a 12-inning game against the Yankees at Tropicana Field, when Longoria broke a 7-7 tie with a line drive over the left-field fence off Scott Proctor to give the Rays a walk-off victory and vault them into the playoffs as the American League Wild Card winners.

Maybe it's a coincidence, all this success-at-the-end stuff. Or maybe it says something about the big moment, and how certain franchise players -- a label Longoria takes more seriously than most -- have a knack for coming through in times like these.

As Price said of his longtime teammate, "He's just not scared of this."

"It seems like every big moment that we have, he's right in the middle of it," Friedman said of the 27-year-old Longoria. "He's able to slow the game down in a way that only the best players can. He is the lynchpin to the success that we've had and the success that we're going to have in the future. And so it's very fitting that he's going to be a big part of this game."

Longoria -- his MVP-caliber season finishing with a .269/.343/.498 slash line -- was there for the Rays when they were new to this whole playoff thing in 2008, hitting six home runs in the first two rounds of a surge that led them to an improbable World Series trip. He struggled in back-to-back AL Division Series that ended in defeats to Texas in 2010 and '11, posting a .194/.256/.417 line in nine games.

And heading into Game 163, Longoria put it out there.

"It just seems like if there was a road that we had to travel down," he said of fittingly facing Texas, "this would be the one."

Longoria singled in the first off rookie lefty Martin Perez, then took an inside-out swing to a low-and-inside, 94-mph fastball in the third and somehow golfed it into the Rangers' bullpen for his 33rd homer to give the Rays a 3-0 lead. In the sixth, off Alexi Ogando, he laced a one-out double, then scored the fourth run on David DeJesus' double.

And not long after that, he celebrated.

"I don't know," Longoria said of why he seems to always come through in games like these. "I wish I could explain it. I wish I could just bottle it up and take it through 161 games and not have it be on the last day.

"I'm just trying to be a leader and set the tone and set the example."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez.

Tampa Bay Rays, Evan Longoria