ST. PETERSBURG -- Evan Longoria dove to his left to reel in grounders that would've gone for hits, maybe even extra bases. He made throws from his knees -- and one from his rear end -- to get runners at first base. He shortened innings and killed rallies practically on his own. And by the time Tuesday's 7-4 loss to the Orioles was over, he'd issued another reminder that the Rays didn't just miss their star third baseman's bat in the middle of their lineup while he sat out more than half the 2012 season with a partially torn left hamstring. They might have missed his defense just as much.
Longoria drew rave reviews for his series of highlight-reel plays at the hot corner in an Opening Day defeat at Tropicana Field, making the kind of difficult grabs and throws the Rays have grown accustomed to from their two-time American League Gold Glove Award winner. It's rare to see a Rays player steal the show on defense from Sam Fuld, who made a few outstanding plays of his own, but Longoria might have done it on Tuesday.
"The defense, I mean, 'The Longo and Sam Show' today was outstanding," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "A lot of good stuff on the defensive side of the ball."
Longoria's first slick play, with two outs and a runner on second in the fourth inning, might have saved lefty David Price and the Rays an early run. The ball shot off Brian Roberts' bat and bounced across Tropicana Field's artificial turf. J.J. Hardy went running from second to third, but Longoria ranged to his left, flung his body toward the ball, scooped it in and fired from his knees into first baseman James Loney's glove. Runner stranded, inning over.
"It kind of just happens," Longoria said. "You can't really practice for that."
Longoria made two more big plays in the fifth, and he didn't even have to leave his feet for the first one. With one out and nobody on, Orioles third baseman Manny Machado bounced a hard-hit chopper just to Longoria's left. Longoria reeled it in, spun and threw the ball, from his knees, on a line to Loney for the out.
"He's Gold Glove at third," said Price, who benefited the most from Longoria's defensive prowess. "Those are the plays we like to see him make. It doesn't matter what he's doing at the plate; he's always got the defense out there at third, and it's huge."
One pitch later, Adam Jones knocked a grounder in the hole. Rays shortstop Yunel Escobar shaded back to keep it from getting into the outfield, but Longoria got there first, diving on top of it, rolling over and making a one-hop throw from his backside right into Loney's outstretched glove.
"It's kind of that Ron Burgundy moment where you just black out and you don't really know what happened," Longoria said. "It was fun."
"I felt like he was on the ground half the time over there," added second baseman Ben Zobrist.
Longoria found himself back on The Trop's infield dirt in the ninth inning. He lunged to stop Matt Wieters' ground ball with his glove, scooped it up and bounced the throw to first baseman Shelley Duncan.
Longoria couldn't even attempt to explain some of the things he did on Tuesday. But he could say how enjoyable it was to play with no nagging injuries holding him back, and he could show just how much the Rays missed his glove while he was sidelined last year.
"It was an eventful day for me, but it felt really good to be back out there," Longoria said. "It felt good to be able to help and be a part of the ballclub again. It's just something that I want to do a lot more of. I want to be able to be on the field for as many games as I can. It was a good start today."