Have you caught your breath yet?
Days like Wednesday remind us that while baseball is sometimes derided as being slow and boring, it is the progression of games and stories that make the this time of year so incredible. It felt almost indulgent, like a well written requiem, from Stephen Strasburg’s dominant start in the mid-afternoon to the crowd of Rays waiting around home plate just after midnight on the east coast, everything felt orchestrated for maximum emotion. The three minutes that elapsed between Robert Andino’s gut punch to the Red Sox and Evan Longoria’s walk-off was just enough time to catch our collective breaths before the amazing happened again.
It was somewhat apropos that Longoria was the man to cap the Rays’ comeback. This season has been one of the worst offensive seasons of Longoria’s admittedly short career. His wOBA and wRC+ were both at career lows heading into Game 162, and while .243/.353/.483 is certainly a solid line — especially when backed up by top class defensive work — it isn’t an accurate representation of Longoria’s talent. Players have down years, teams have down years; it was ever thus. Fortunately for the Rays, his malaise wasn’t a season-long affliction.
An oblique strain cost Longoria a month early in the season and he batted foot issues during the summer, but with the team down nine games in the AL East and 8.5 games back in the wild card, Longoria came to life. His September was by far his best month of the season — .289/.454/.589 with 7 HR with 27 BB compared to just 16 K — coming when the Rays needed him the most.
Looking ahead to the playoffs and — because this is a fantasy column — to playoff fantasy leagues, there’s every reason to believe the Longoria of the second half is going to the same player who shows up in the playoffs. A huge feature of his resurgence was line drive rate that lingered around 16.5 percent for most of the season, then rose to 21 percent in the last month. His BABIP of .279 was his second highest month this season, yet was still nearly 25 points below his career average. Obviously, that may or may not come up in the playoffs, it’s too short a time to say with any certainty, but it does mean that his success is unlikely to evaporate against the Rangers or beyond.
In both of the first two games, Longoria will face a lefty starter, first C.J. Wilson and then Derek Holland. Longoria hit lefties fairly well, .258/.376/.567 in just 149 PAs, though he hit just 10 of his 31 home runs off of port-siders. Wilson is better against lefties than righties, which bodes better for Longoria, though there’s a reason Wilson is considered to be the top free agent pitcher this offseason: He’s tough on everyone. 14 of the 16 HR he allowed this season were hit by right-handed hitters, but he still held them to a .227/.296/.354 line overall. Holland was a little more generous to righties, allowing them a .272/.339/.426 line with 19 of the 21 home runs hit against him this year.
Longoria played reasonably well against the Rangers, .233/.378/.467 over nine games, which is part of the reason I like him better than nearly any other third baseman in the playoffs. Unfortunately, the only third baseman I like better than him is playing in the same series, which means one of the top two 3Bs isn’t going to be available past the first round of the playoffs. Longoria has been good lately, but Adrian Beltre has been otherworldly, hitting .374/.385/.773, since returning from the DL on September 1.
Early returns are showing the Rangers as the odds-on favorite to advance to the ALCS, which makes Beltre an even better play, but if the last few weeks have taught us anything, it’s that odds can change in a hurry. Beltre is still the better option of the two in my eyes, but if you feel strongly that the Rays can pull the upset, by all means go with Longoria, who isn’t likely to disappoint you with his production.