ST. PETERSBURG — Reflecting on Sunday's 3-2 Tampa Bay Rays loss, few people understand why Alex Rodriguez is still playing in games affecting and possibly infecting pennant baseball races. A-Rod had a pinch-hit single in the 10th inning Sunday at the Trop but was caught off second on a line-drive double play, thereby saving the republic. Few people understand how the Rays, up 1-0 in the first inning on the Yankees, didn't put this game away right there, with bases loaded and one out. This was a series sweep for the taking, ding, dong, the Yanks are dead. James Loney rapped into a double play, the first of four the Rays hit into Sunday. And pretty much no one understands how the Rays, whether it was pitcher Jamey Wright or shortstop Yunel Escobar, let Alfonso Soriano steal third base after his double in the 11th, inexcusable. It cost the Rays the game when Curtis Granderson hit a sacrifice fly. Why Rays manager Joe Maddon had Wright pitch to Granderson I don't understand.
OK, this club has still won four consecutive series. They're in a good place. And here's a reason anyone understands: Evan Longoria is back on track. “He's definitely looking like he's supposed to,” Maddon said. “There have been times throughout the course of the year I've felt like I feel right now,” Longoria said. “They've kind of been fewer and farther between than is some years past, but it's good to feel the way I'm feeling right now coming down the stretch.” Different Rays have taken turns leading the way this season, different bats, including the one owned by rookie Wil Myers. Now maybe it is Longoria's turn as the Rays turn for home. He drove in both of his team's runs Sunday, including the homer that tied it in the sixth. That's three home runs in three days, five in his past seven games, six in his past 10. Longoria had two RBIs in Saturday's comeback win over New York, a single to put the Rays ahead, a homer to put it away. Here comes a playoff race, another bubbling cauldron, another September you won't be able to keep your eyes off. Here is Longoria, coming around. “He likes this,” Maddon said. No, he loves this. Longoria has 28 homers and 71 RBIs, best on his team, but no one is saying this has been his best season. He is hitting .324 with 15 extra-base hits over his last 17 games, this after a .174 average and just seven extra-base hits in the 33 games before that. The slump was real. Now the streak is. Now things are heating up. So is the third baseman, whose fielding has never cooled. “He went from like his worst month to maybe one of his best months,” Maddon said. “When you get a great player like that, he can do those kind of things. He's not missing his pitch, his at-bats have been so much better, not expanding the strike zone ...” It is no small thing, having your best player look like your best player. “We've put ourselves in a good situation,” Longoria said. “We've allowed multiple guys to carry our team. Whether it's me or anybody else, it's ultimately going to take 25 guys to win. It feels good to be going good and contributing, but again, it can come and go, so you've just got to ride it while it's here.” Longoria nearly struck in the bottom of the 11th on Sunday. He brought many in an actual Rays' sellout crowd to their feet when he drilled a Mariano Rivera cutter to left center, but Granderson made the catch near the wall. The great Rivera got the save in his final game at the Trop. “I thought it was going to be in the gap at least,” Longoria said. “I guess they were playing no doubles and (Granderson) was back by the wall. I guess that's the baseball gods giving Mo some love there.” September is coming. It is not for gods. It's simply for ballplayers who live for moments. Yes, it will take 25 guys. Hitters directly behind Longoria will have to protect him. Myers has never been through a September race. Longoria has been in the middle of them. He'll have to be in the middle of this one, too. Understand something: He loves this.