Life without injured stars no easy task

Life without injured stars no easy task

Life without injured stars no easy task
A certain feeling came over the Rays when they lost star third baseman Evan Longoria to a torn hamstring, not unlike the uncomfortable feeling the Giants experienced when they lost Buster Posey last season, or that of the Twins when they dealt with the absences of their big bats in the heart of the lineup last year.

Injuries are part of the game, but there's nothing quite like the hollow feeling that can stir when a team loses a cornerstone-type player.

The good news for Tampa Bay -- which lost Longoria for 6-8 weeks -- is that the Rays maintain a share of first place in the cut-throat American League East. In fact, the team rattled off four straight wins after the three-time All-Star was sidelined.

Infielders Eliot Johnson and Jeff Keppinger have helped to shoulder the load in Longoria's absence, but neither expects to fill the void entirely.

"I'm not going to try and be Longo, because obviously that's pretty much impossible," Johnson said. "There's only one Evan Longoria. So I'll try and be myself out there and try and do the things I do to help the team."

Like the Rays, some teams fill the void internally when they lose a key player -- the way Eli Whiteside and Chris Stewart stepped in when Posey fractured his lower left leg and ankle last year.

When Posey went down, the sentiments out of the Giants clubhouse mirrored those of the Rays.

"You just don't replace a Buster Posey," manager Bruce Bochy said.

"When such a key part of your team gets injured, it's definitely a shock," right-hander Matt Cain said.

And Whiteside, at the time: "I'm not going to try to be Buster. He's our four-hole hitter and playing every day. I'm just going to go out there and do my best."

But there is another school of thought, a route the Tigers took this winter when designated hitter Victor Martinez's tore an ACL, ending his season before it even began.

"Anytime that happens, I think you're in a situation where you feel like you got a sock in the gut," general manager Dave Dombrowski said.

Instead of hoping the Tigers could pick up the remaining pieces and give it another shot for the AL Central title, Dombrowski and owner Mike Ilitch went out and reloaded with another high-profile slugger in Prince Fielder.

"It came about when Martinez got injured and we sat down, Dave and I and some of the other key people in the organization, about how we're going to handle this," Ilitch said of the Fielder signing. "I got a little dizzy because this person would move here and this person would move here ... and I got to thinking, and I said, 'You know, they're all going to have pressure on them to match that .320 batting average and 100 RBIs. They're going to feel pressure to fill in that slot. I don't want to run into that.' I was telling Dave I'd feel a lot better if we could just totally solve it, then when [Martinez] gets back, I think we'll have a very, very explosive team. That's really how it got going."

Like the Rays, the Tigers have managed to stay afloat by weathering the setbacks to key players. Time will tell for clubs like the Nationals (Jayson Werth, broken wrist) and the Red Sox (Andrew Bailey, right thumb; Carl Crawford, elbow).

Minnesota can serve as a cautionary tale, after enduring a discouraging 2011 campaign as former MVPs Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau combined to play just 151 games due to lingering injuries. After winning the AL Central title in each of the two previous seasons, Minnesota finished dead last, 32 games behind the Tigers.

Joey Nowak is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @joeynowak. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.