Evan Longoria is 23 years old, less than three years removed from college. He has played 152 games in the majors.
And yet it is already clear that he is on a unique career trajectory. He spent all of six days in the majors before signing a deal that could keep him with the Tampa Bay Rays through 2016 for a total of $44.5 million. By that point, it was already apparent to the baseball world that, so long as he remains healthy, that deal would be a bargain.
Now, in his second tour with the Rays, it is becoming increasingly apparent just how big a bargain he will be.
“I think he’s the best player in baseball, bar none. The best baseball player,” said Rays (and former Red Sox) outfielder Gabe Kapler. “I feel like there is not a more well-rounded player in baseball than him.”
Longoria is a Gold Glove-caliber third baseman who also happens to be as lethal as any hitter in the American League right now. Longoria ranks among American League leaders in average (.367, 4th), homers (11, 2nd), RBIs (44, 1st), OBP (.415, T-6th) and slugging (.767, 1st). He has been a wrecking ball, and no team is more aware of that than the Red Sox.
The Rays shredded the Sox by a 14-5 count, and once again Longoria looked the part of an unstoppable force. He went 2-for-4 with a homer and double while driving in five to increase his ridiculous RBI count against the Sox to 21 in nine games.
Yet the raw numbers didn’t tell the complete story. In the first inning, Jon Lester threw a pitcher’s pitch – a 94 mph two-seam fastball that ran below Longoria’s shins on the outside part of the plate. Longoria squared it, and his screaming liner somehow stayed up long enough to crash just above the centerfield bleachers.
“Pounded him in, pounded him in, and suddenly throw the two-seam away and somehow he stays on it and hits it out to center,” said Lester. “Tip your hat, I guess.”
In the fifth, Lester hummed a 95 mph fastball at the belt on the inside corner. Longoria managed to turn on it, lofting high fly ball off the top of the Green Monster for a two-run double.
“I think amazed might be the right word because watching him is pretty special. He’s an exceptional player. When he showed up, he probably thought he was this good, in a good way. That’s probably what’s enabled him to, in his second year of big league baseball, to be one of the premier players. You have to think you’re that good and he does. He does a great job out there. He continues to impress his teammates and he continues to impress me and I’m sure the competition.”
Certainly the Sox are impressed. A full 162-game calendar of Longoria against the Sox, based on the first nine contests of this year, would project to 90 homers and 378 RBIs.
Here are five other things we learned from the Rays’ sixth win in nine games against the Sox this year.
JON LESTER CAN PITCH WELL AND STILL END UP GIVING UP EIGHT RUNS
Before Saturday, Jon Lester had made 65 career starts. He had never given up as many as eight runs, as he did against the Rays in 4.1 innings in the 14-5 loss.
And yet, Lester had little for which he had to apologize in his outing. Though he gave up 10 hits, almost all – except those struck by the superhuman Longoria – were weak grounders that happened to find holes in the field.
In the six-run fifth inning that knocked Lester from the game, for instance, the Rays collected five singles on grounders in the hole between third and short, and another on a bunt single on which Lester was a bit slow to throw to first.
In many respects, it was a rash of poor luck that conspired to ruin the pitcher’s afternoon on a day when he featured an explosive fastball and a swing-and-miss curve and cutter (Lester struck out five batters in a six-batter span in the third and fourth innings). As such, it was an outing that Lester seemed to find both confusing and immensely frustrating.
“It’s frustrating to get those results when I feel like I threw the ball pretty well and am going in the right direction,” said Lester, whose record fell to 2-3 with a 6.31 ERA. “I don’t really know what to say to it. I don’t think there are a whole lot of adjustments that need to be done.
“I know that I keep saying that,” he added. “It’s probably getting old. I feel like I’m throwing the ball pretty well. Right now, the balls aren’t going at people.”
The pitcher is correct. Contact is yielding incredibly poor outcomes for Lester, as opponents’ batting average on balls in play (meaning any outcome other than a homer or strikeout, both of which reflect directly on the pitcher, rather than his fielders) is .370. That is the 69th worst number among 71 American League pitchers who have thrown at least 20 innings this year, and well above the league average of .302 on balls in play.
That, in turn, suggests that Lester has been betrayed by both his defense and his luck. In that vein, it is worth mentioning that the Sox have been among the worst teams in baseball at turning balls in play into outs. They have done so just 67.6 percent of the time, ranked 25th in baseball.
JULIO LUGO WILL NOT WIN A GOLD GLOVE
Of course, much of Lester’s bad luck occurred on the same part of the diamond. One grounder after another in that fateful fifth scooted through the left side of the infield, through the hole between short and third.
Naturally, any time a ball travels within the same zip code as Julio Lugo and does not get caught, the shortstop is going to get hammered for his defensive shortcomings. That was certainly the case on Saturday, as the crowd at Fenway booed him throughout an inning when five seemingly harmless dribblers went untouched en route to left field.
“A lot of those balls, off the bat, I thought were outs. It just seemed like our guys were paying one step the wrong way. Not saying they’re in the wrong position, but it just seems like that’s the way things are going for me right now,” said Lester. “I threw some good pitches there, they beat them into the ground and just out of the reach of guys. That’s baseball and it happens. But obviously it’s frustrating. I’d like to have those balls obviously hit five or six feet the other way and they’re outs or double plays.”
Lugo, still less than two weeks into his return to the majors following knee surgery, said that he should have gloved one of those balls. Had he done so, it could have changed the complexion of the inning completely.
After Aki Iwamura led off the fifth with a single, Rays catcher Dioner Navarro hit a sharp grounder to Lugo’s right. The ball went just beyond Lugo’s grasp, as the shortstop seemed to alligator arm a potential double-play ball.
“I know I could have come up with that ball that Navarro hit,” said Lugo. “I just couldn’t come up with it.”
“The last thing I want to do and I would never do this is throw a game on Lugey,” said manager Terry Francona. “(But) if Navarro hits the ball, potentially it’s nobody on, two out.”
(When Lugo came off the D.L., he said that he was still experiencing discomfort when bending down and to the right, something that could have impaired his range on such a ball. On Saturday, he insisted that he is no longer dealing with physical limitations in his return from knee surgery in mid-March.)
The other balls were likely unplayable, but the Fenway crowd nevertheless offered a verbal referendum every time that Lugo was in the vicinity of another grounder through the hole.
Lugo makes a popular target, regardless of what he does, because he has performed poorly for much of the time since he signed a four-year, $36 million deal prior to the 2007 season. But the notion that he is somehow an albatross on the Sox is possible to exaggerate.
A year ago, the Sox were 49-30 (.620) and gave up an average of 4.2 runs per game when he started last year. The team was 46-37 (.554) and was hit for an average of 4.4 runs a game when anyone else started at short.
Obviously, that’s not to suggest that Lugo solidified the defense or the team. Plenty of other factors (for instance, injuries to J.D. Drew and Mike Lowell) influenced the fact that the team had a worse winning percentage and allowed more runs per game while Lugo missed the second half. But it does suggest that the notion that he is hurting the club can – and often is – exaggerated.
It is likely too soon to draw a conclusion one way or the other in 2009. Lugo is still working, as Francona said, to get “some of that athleticism back. It’s there and we know it and he knows it.”
For now, his range and defensive abilities – never spectacular to begin with – are being hindered. Given that Mike Lowell, coming off of surgery on his right hip, still seemingly is trying to regain his range to his right, the Sox have been having some problems in the field.
Lugo has been a part of that, but perhaps not in a fashion commensurate with the boos he received on Saturday. Still, he is separating his defensive struggles from his offense. Thus far, Lugo is enjoying good results at the plate since returning. He hit a homer as one of his two hits on Saturday to improve his average to .357, and his OPS to .936.
ANOTHER RAY MIGHT DO MORE TO TORTURE THE SOX THAN LONGORIA
Make no mistake, Longoria has been extraordinary against the Red Sox this year. He’s hitting .405 with a .442 OBP and .946 slugging mark, slamming five homers and driving in 21 in just nine games against the Sox this year. It would be difficult to argue with the assertion that he is the man who is most responsible for the Rays’ 6-3 record against the Sox this year.
But Carl Crawford has been nearly as significant a menace to the Sox. The Rays’ No. 2 hitter is hitting .474 with a .512 OBP and .658 against Boston this year. After going 3-for-4 with a walk on Saturday, he has reached base in 13 of his last 16 plate appearances against the Sox dating to last Sunday.
Every time he reaches base, he has been a source of distraction and aggravation to opposing pitchers. Longoria has been the beneficiary.
“I’m really setting it up for those guys,” explained Crawford. “When I’m on base, I’m trying to get them a good pitch, or get in scoring position.”
“Pitchers don’t want to throw Longo breaking balls with Carl on first,” added Rays manager Joe Maddon. “I know Longo’s been seeing better pitches.”
The Sox were left with a consolation prize on Saturday, as Crawford failed to steal a base against them, breaking a streak of five straight games with at least one steal against Boston. Given that Crawford scored three runs and drove in another, it seems unlikely that the Sox took too much joy in the fact.
TAKASHI SAITO IS A WORK IN PROGRESS
When Takashi Saito signed with the Sox this offseason, it was surely with the expectation of pitching meaningful innings, giving the Sox a second closer behind Jonathan Papelbon. His 1.95 ERA entering through 2008 was the second-best ever for a pitcher in his first three seasons (min. 150 games). Opponents hit just .182 with a .511 OPS against him, as Saito struck out 11.6 batters per nine innings.
Yet Saito has not been that pitcher with the Sox. Indeed, of late, he has been treated as something of a mop-up man for the Sox as he tries to rediscover the form that made him one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball.
On Saturday, Saito was the second reliever into the game, asked to pick up innings to spare his team’s setup men. He came into an inglorious game situation, with runners on second and third and no outs in the sixth inning of an 11-3 contest. He gave up a hit, an intentional walk and a 400-foot sac fly.
Afterwards, he told Japanese reporters that he is struggling in his adjustment to entering the game as dictated by need after having owned the ninth for the Dodgers. Of course, he also recognizes that he must prove himself to his new team if he wants to change from his current station to a more predictable and meaningful one.
He now has a 4.50 ERA. Opponents have hit .292 against him with an .812 OPS. He has just one 1-2-3 inning this year.
Only once all year have the Sox entrusted him with a one-run lead. In that instance, he coughed it up in an eventual 9-8 loss to the Indians. Since that time, he has appeared in five games, none with the Sox leading or trailing by any less than four runs.
Because the Sox have such impressive setup men in Ramon Ramirez, Hideki Okajima and Manny Delcarmen, they can afford to allow Saito time to rediscover his form on the mound. But they seem likely to do so in situations that are anything but high leverage.
KEVIN YOUKILIS HOPES TO RETURN TUESDAY
Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis, out of the lineup since Monday with what he describes as a "left side" injury (asked whether it was an oblique, he said that he wasn't sure of the exact medical terminology of the injury), said that he continues to improve. Even so, he has yet to resume baseball activities.
As of Saturday, he had yet to swing a bat since leaving in the middle of Monday's game against the Yankees. With an off-day scheduled on Monday, the Sox are hoping that he will continue to improve and be ready to return -- or nearly ready to return -- by the start of the series against the Angels on Tuesday.
If that proves impossible, then the first baseman suggested that he could end up landing on the disabled list.
"If I can’t get in by this roadtrip," said Youkilis, "they’ll probably put me on the D.L. I want to play as soon as possible."
Sox manager Terry Frnaocna, however, suggested that the D.L. was not an imminent possibility.
"No. We're at five (games missed) today, tomorrow's six, then we have a day off," Francona said. "Unless there was something really compelling -- he'd have to feel really good tomorrow -- with that day off Monday, we'll try to use that to his advatnage. Since it's gone this far, we don't want to jeopardize the D.L. to get him in one game."
Youkilis felt confident that he is progressing in the right direction.
"Everyday it gets better. Today it feels good, and hopefully tomorrow it feels even better," he said. "We don’t have a timetable, but we want to make sure it’s 100 percent so it doesn’t happen again all year."
As difficult as it’s been for Youkilis to miss time, he said that the undertaking has been made somewhat bearable by the success of the Sox in his absence. The team has gone 3-2 in the five games he’s missed, and has averaged 6.8 runs per game in the process.