The 2008 season already saw the young club from St. Petersburg, Fla., make its first trip in 11 years of existence to the postseason, win its first American League East title, get to the World Series for the first time and crown its first Gold Glove Award winner in Carlos Pena.
On Monday, it officially had its first Rookie of the Year Award winner, too.
And it wasn't even close.
Third baseman Evan Longoria capped a remarkable season -- individually and team-wise -- when he captured all 28 first-place votes and was unanimously named the Jackie Robinson AL Rookie of the Year by the Baseball Writers' Association of America, joining National League winner and Cubs catcher Geovany Soto.
Not only did 2008 see the Rays make a 31-game improvement from last season, eventually losing in five games to the Phillies in the World Series, it also saw Longoria make a name for himself when he hit .272 with 27 home runs and 85 RBIs in 122 games.
"This is where, as a baseball player, I wanted to be," Longoria said via conference call from his California home. "If I told you two years ago I knew I'd be in this situation, I'd be lying. This is a dream come true and what you always dream of as a kid."
White Sox second baseman Alexei Ramirez, who finished with a .290 batting average to go along with 21 home runs and 77 RBIs, finished a distant second with 18 second-place votes and 59 total points. Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, Royals shortstop Mike Aviles and Tigers starter Armando Galarraga finished third, fourth and fifth, respectively.
Longoria, the third-overall pick by the Rays in the 2006 First-Year Player Draft, began the season at Triple-A Durham, but was promoted to the big club on April 12, where he started 103 of the next 104 games while hitting mostly cleanup and fifth.
The 23-year-old then had his first setback when he suffered a fractured right wrist after being hit by a pitch from Mariners closer J.J. Putz on Aug. 10, and Longoria went on to miss the next 30 games.
Still, Longoria led all Major League rookies in home runs and slugging percentage (.531). In addition, he was tops among AL rookies in RBIs, extra-base hits (60) and total bases (238). The 6-foot-2 right-handed hitter wasn't too bad with the glove, either, as he ranked sixth among AL third basemen with a .963 fielding percentage.
But, for Rays fans, the best news is he won't be leaving any time soon.
Longoria signed a six-year, $17.5 million contract earlier in the 2008 season. With a year like this one and a contract like that, Longoria will undoubtedly be one of the faces of the young Tampa Bay franchise.
That's a role he's just fine with.
"We all know that baseball is a team sport, but every franchise has to have somebody," Longoria said. "You look at every team, and there's one player that sticks out. Whether it's me or B.J. Upton or Scott Kazmir, it doesn't matter. If it happens to be me, I'll do the best I can to represent the club and the city."
Among the highlights from Longoria's season were two game-winning home runs, the first coming May 9, when he hit a walk-off, two-run shot off Justin Speier to win it 2-0 against the Angels and make a winner of James Shields, who threw a one-hitter. The other came at Oakland, where he hit a two-run homer off Chad Gaudin in the 13th inning to make it 7-5, Rays. Tampa Bay held on for a 7-6 win.
On Sept. 18, Longoria hit three home runs in one game against the Twins, making him the second player in Rays history to accomplish the feat (Jonny Gomes hit three on July 30, 2005). By doing so, Longoria became the first rookie third baseman to hit three in one game since Eddie Mathews in 1952.
After a milestone year like that, there isn't much room for improvement. But with big numbers come big expectations, and Longoria is definitely ready for that.
"That's something I enjoy," he said. "I feel like I can, obviously, do a lot more. I had a great year -- bar none. I wouldn't go into next year expecting myself to hit double the home runs and double the RBIs. That would be a silly thought. I think if I were able to replicate this year every year, it'd be a productive year.
"I know I have the ability to do more, and all I can really do is prepare myself to the best of my abilities and then go out on the field and see what happens."
|2008 AL Rookie of the Year Voting|
|Evan Longoria, TB||28||140|
|Alexei Ramirez, CWS||18||5||59|
|Jacoby Ellsbury, BOS||7||5||26|
|Mike Aviles, KC||2||3||9|
|Armando Galarraga, DET||9||9|
|Joey Devine, OAK||1||3|
|Denard Span, MIN||3||3|
|Nick Blackburn, MIN||1||1|
|Joba Chamberlain, NYY||1||1|
|Brad Ziegler, OAK||1||1|
But to Longoria, it didn't dampen the season he and his teammates had.
"I knew when the [Series] was over, I didn't play very well -- everybody who watched the World Series knew that," Longoria said. "But, having the year that I had and just being able to play in that situation and that Series, I knew -- win or lose -- I was just going to the stadium every day to have fun.
"I was still pretty content with the fact that we had such a great year and really nothing to be disappointed about."
Longoria, who was the only player listed on all the ballots, became the seventh AL rookie to win the award by a unanimous vote and the first since Nomar Garciaparra in 1997. The others were Derek Jeter, Tim Salmon, Sandy Alomar Jr., Mark McGwire and Carlton Fisk. Longoria is also the fourth third baseman honored, joining Eric Hinske, John Castino and Gil McDougald.
"It's so special," said Longoria, whose sole focus now is getting completely healthy so he can play in all 162 games next year. "It's tough to put into words.
"I didn't start the year in the big leagues; I struggled all the way through high school ball and college ball. There are so many emotions that come to mind when I think about [winning the award]."
The Rays' previous best finisher in Rookie of the Year Award voting was Delmon Young, who finished second to Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia in 2007.
Rays skipper Joe Maddon is expected to be named the BBWAA's AL Manager of the Year on Wednesday.
Alden Gonzalez is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.