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'E-Love' arrives to much fanfare

'E-Love' arrives to much fanfare

ST. PETERSBURG -- "Evan Almighty," "The Natural" or, as B.J. Upton calls him, "E-Love" stepped into the Rays' clubhouse sometime around 2 p.m. Saturday in advance of his much-anticipated Major League debut.

Evan Longoria would have been there sooner, but the 22-year-old third baseman didn't want to be the first to arrive or risk the inevitable ration of teasing for being too eager. Within the hour, the Rays prodigy saw a lineup card featuring his name in the sixth spot, talked to Rays manager Joe Maddon -- who told him to be himself -- and tried to chill.

"If I've ever been nervous for the game, today's definitely the day," Longoria said. "I think once I get out there on the field it will go away."

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Longoria didn't look nervous, though, as he drove in the Rays' first run of the game with his first Major League hit, a single, in the sixth inning against the Orioles. He added a walk in the eighth.

The Rays placed infielder Willy Aybar on the 15-day disabled list, retroactive to Thursday, with a left-hamstring strain. To replace him, the club selected Longoria from Triple-A Durham. To clear room on the 40-man roster, right-hander Chad Orvella was transferred to the 60-day disabled list.

Aybar's trip to the DL opened up a spot for Longoria, but the youngster's arrival signaled much more than a roster move for the organization. During Spring Training, many of the team's players viewed Longoria's fate as a litmus test for how interested the Rays were in winning. Would the Rays elect to let Longoria make the team, proving forever that winning ranked first? Or would they decide to leave him down for the necessary amount of time to delay his arbitration and free agency years?

Longoria played well during the spring, hitting .262 with three home runs and 10 RBIs in 20 games. Nevertheless, he was reassigned to Minor League camp on March 24. Whether the Rays sincerely wanted Longoria to hone his game at Triple-A Durham or not, the day Longoria was sent down was not a happy one inside the Rays' clubhouse. Now that he's back, that vibe has changed.

"Most definitely," Jonny Gomes said, when asked whether Longoria's return sends a good message. "And it's a good message that he stayed professional and went and did what he had to do. You can't hide hitting."

Added Carl Crawford: "Everybody's happy to see him back. I hope he gets adjusted to everything quickly and gets the ball rolling in the right direction."

Longoria did not seem concerned in the least about arbitration or free agency.

"I'm in the big leagues now, so that's the least of my concerns," Longoria said. "I'm trying to make an impact, and staying here as long as I can, and not worry about free agency or arbitration or anything about that."

The Rays drafted the native of Downey, Calif., out of Long Beach State with their first pick (third overall) in the 2006 First Year Player Draft. Since then, he has performed at every level he's played. He opened the year for Durham with an 0-for-15 slump before getting five hits in his last 10 at-bats.

"I've seen this young man swing and I've seen his approach at the plate, and, like anybody else, he can go 0-for-15," Maddon said. "The best hitter in the world can go 0-for-15. I think there probably was a minor disappointment at being sent back at that time. A little bit of a letdown. But he's rebounded. He's five for his last [10], so I have a lot of faith in him as a hitter and also on defense. This guy is a fine defender -- great backhand, great at fielding bunts -- so that adds another element also."

Longoria is hoping to establish himself with the Rays so he is not sent back to Durham.

"I'm looking at staying long-term," Longoria said. "Obviously, anybody who comes up is thinking long-term. Nobody wants to go down. Everybody wants to stay here as long as they can. I'm going to do everything I can in my power to stay here."

Maddon said the promotion "absolutely can" become permanent.

"And I think he's going to be ready for the challenge," Maddon said. "The biggest thing I want to impress upon him is just go out there and develop at your own pace. Just because you're in the big leagues, don't quit doing all the little things you've been doing up to this point. It's going to be just fine. My biggest thing as a manager for Evan right now is to make sure he understands that. And just goes about his business as he normally would."

Whether he remains could depend more on his mental toughness than anything else. Crawford remembered when he got the call to the Show and had some advice for Longoria.

"Just keep working hard," Crawford said. "Whatever you did to get here, keep doing that. You're going to read a lot of stuff about you. It's all up to you if you buy into that stuff. You can easily get sucked in to all the hype. So usually when the hype comes, you become a target for the other team. Just work hard; don't believe everything you read. Just believe in yourself and see what happens."

For the time being, Longoria seemed more than happy to just be.

"It's different -- it's a different feeling," Longoria said. "All the guys in here can tell you this is what they work for pretty much their whole life, and now that it's here it's pretty cool."

Call Evan Longoria by any of the above-mentioned nicknames, but Saturday afternoon he resembled an excited 22-year-old about to realize a lifelong dream.

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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