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Rays prove how far they've come

Rays prove how far they've come

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ST. LOUIS -- Before advancing to the 2001 National League Championship Series with the Braves, Dave Martinez had been the longest-tenured Major League player who had never previously participated in the postseason.

Provided his first full-time opportunity to serve as a big league coach last season, Martinez immediately reacquainted himself with an adrenaline rush that proved to be much sweeter -- given the fact that he was experiencing it with a Rays organization that had come a long way since he'd registered the franchise's first hit on March 31, 1998.

While the Rays fell short during last year's World Series, the journey that carried them there is still paying dividends that are evidenced through the fact that they'll have an overwhelming presence in the American League dugout during Tuesday night's All-Star Game at Busch Stadium on FOX at 8 ET.

Along with having Martinez and the rest of his Tampa Bay coaching staff present, AL manager Joe Maddon will have a roster that includes five Rays. Last year marked just the second time in franchise history that more than one player gained an All-Star selection.

"It's nice to have all of the Rays here," said outfielder Carl Crawford, who has now gained a franchise-high three All-Star selections. "To have more than just one person shows how far we've come as an organization."

Maddon's starting lineup will include Evan Longoria at third base. On his bench, the skipper will be able to call upon four Rays: Crawford, shortstop Jason Bartlett, second baseman Ben Zobrist and first baseman Carlos Pena.

"We've got the whole infield here now," Bartlett said. "That's something that's crazy. I told [third-base coach] Tom Foley that he needed to ask for a raise quick, because we've got all the infielders here. We've got a lot of talent, and I think everybody is starting to see it."

Although he leads the Junior Circuit with 24 homers, Pena didn't gain a roster spot until Sunday, when Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia excused himself from the experience to tend to a family matter.

Last year, just three full months into his career, Longoria found himself texting friends to help him gain his first All-Star selection through the Final Vote fan ballot. His campaigning helped him gain a record nine million votes from friends and many of the same fans who cast their votes that have put him in position to start this year's game.

Longoria visited a doctor on Monday morning and received some medication to heal his infected right ring finger. The grogginess that he was battling just a few hours later didn't prevent him from envisioning great accomplishments during Tuesday night's game.

"I can't wait to get out there and play hard and maybe win an MVP," a confident Longoria said.

Crawford, who was selected by the Rays in the second round of the 1999 First-Year Player Draft, holds the franchise record for hits, RBIs, at-bats, runs, stolen bases, triples and games. The 27-year-old outfielder has lived through the organization's great transformation and seen the future brightened with the Draft selection of Longoria and trades that secured the services of the likes of Zobrist and Bartlett.

While the 23-year-old Longoria has now gained two All-Star selections during his first two Major League seasons, Pena, Zobrist and Bartlett find themselves getting their first tastes of a Midsummer Classic experience that they didn't necessarily envision when this season began.

"I'm still in shock," said Bartlett, a .286 career hitter, who has fashioned a .347 batting average through the season's first half. "It's still all kind of settling in."

While the 29-year-old Bartlett had already gained Major League experience when the Twins packaged him in the trade that also sent Matt Garza to the Rays before the start of the 2008 season, the 28-year-old Zobrist was toiling at the Double-A level with the Astros, when Tampa Bay acquired him in exchange for Aubrey Huff during the 2006 All-Star break.

"I didn't even know who Joe Maddon was," Zobrist said, recalling his immediate thoughts when informed of the trade. "I wasn't paying enough attention to the Major Leagues at that time. ... I didn't know a thing about the Rays either, except that they had Carl Crawford."

Zobrist served as the Rays' starting shortstop during the final two months of the 2006 season, and then spent parts of the past two seasons in the Minors and being utilized as a platoon player. His versatility has never proven to be any more important than it has this year, while playing six different positions and ranking second in the AL to Joe Mauer in slugging percentage .598 and OPS (1.012).

With 17 homers at the break, Zobrist has already totaled two more than he'd hit during the 145 career big league games he'd played entering this season.

"Zobrist has great energy," Pena said. "It's great that all of us are together here."

Gone are the days when the Rays would annually account for just one of the AL's roster spot. With last year's run to the World Series and this week's opportunity to share another grand stage with so many of his teammates, Crawford is gaining experiences that seemed somewhat unrealistic during his earliest days with the franchise.

"You didn't doubt it happening," Crawford said. "You just wondered when it was going to happen, and you just hoped that you were around to see it."

Mark Bowman 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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