- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
- 0 Shares
PHILADELPHIA -- Carlos Pena's biggest regular-season funk came in May, when he went 17 at-bats against the Texas Rangers and the Chicago White Sox without a base hit. Evan Longoria endured his major dry spell a month later, with an 0-for-14 bender against the Florida Marlins and Chicago Cubs.
Encounter that kind of glitch in the spring or early summer, and you have the luxury of time to set things straight. A little soft toss here, some extra batting practice and a few personal consults with hitting instructor Steve Henderson there, and yesterday's slump is today's mettle tester and formative experience.
Life changes for a ballplayer in October. Each at-bat is diced, sliced, parsed and dissected. And once the clubhouse doors swing open and the reporters come streaming in, the postgame analysis turns into a group therapy session.
There are lots of reasons why Tampa Bay trails Philadelphia three games to one in the World Series, but no Rays are facing greater scrutiny than the two guys in the money spots in the batting order. Pena and Longoria are a combined 0-for-29 with 15 strikeouts against the Phillies, and that doesn't buy a man much compassion at this point in the calendar.
Give them this much: They've been stand-up guys about their failings. Longoria approached his locker 15 minutes after the final pitch in Sunday night's 10-2 loss at Citizens Bank Park and answered question after question without a trace of defensiveness. He's so mature and accountable, it's hard to believe he's 23 years old.
"It's tough," Longoria said. "You're under such a microscope when you don't produce here and now in the moment. Everybody expects you to perform the way you did all year, but those guys aren't going to give you any kind of chance to succeed. That Phillies pitching staff is solid all the way through, and when they get in the biggest situations, they seem to be making some pretty good pitches."
Longoria hit .272 with 27 homers and established himself as the front-runner for American League Rookie of the Year despite missing a month with a fractured wrist. Pena, who led the team with 46 home runs in 2007, came back with 31 homers and 102 RBIs this season and carried the team when Longoria and Carl Crawford went on the disabled list. Some people in the organization think he was the Rays' Most Valuable Player.
Pena and Longoria hit a combined .295 with nine home runs in the first two rounds of the playoffs. So why have they gone cold at the worst time imaginable?
Theories abound. The Phillies had a team of scouts following the Rays for weeks, and they picked up on every tendency or bad habit. If there was a weakness to exploit, rest assured that Chuck LaMar, Hank King, Gordon Lakey, Charlie Kerfeld and Jim Fregosi Jr. mentioned it in Philadelphia's pre-World Series meetings.
An American League scout who's been watching the World Series on television observed that Longoria is having problems with the slider and is definitely pressing. He's not seeing the ball well out of the pitcher's hand, and he lacks the confidence to let pitches travel deep into the strike zone. "A large part of his struggles, I'd say, are self-inflicted," the scout said.
As for Pena, he's expanded his strike zone and isn't showing the same selectivity that he did for much of this season. The Phillies appear to be challenging Pena with high fastballs early in counts, and he's taken consistently big rips and fouled many of those pitches back to the screen.
Just when Pena is geared up for another fastball, the Philadelphia pitchers have been adept at changing planes and tormenting him with changeups and off-speed pitches on the outside corner.
Is fatigue a factor? Perhaps. But as Longoria points out, everybody is physically and mentally fatigued and running on adrenaline this late in the season.
Tampa Bay DH Cliff Floyd points to another reason: While the Phillies' Chase Utley and Ryan Howard have consistently come to the plate with runners on base, Pena and Longoria have led off quite a few innings or come up with the bases empty. That significantly changes the dynamic.
"We haven't had much to manufacture out there, so you can pitch these guys any way you want," Floyd said. "If you get the bases loaded and get Carlos or Evan up there, it'll be a different story. Right now those guys are going up there trying to hit two-run homers with nobody on base."
It's been a tough series for Longoria in more ways than one. In Game 3 on Saturday, he crushed a Jamie Moyer pitch to left field only to watch the ball hit a stiff wind and die at the warning track. And he was unable to make a play on Carlos Ruiz's slow roller as Eric Bruntlett scored the winning run in the bottom of the ninth.
In Game 4, Longoria slapped a tag on Jimmy Rollins during a first-inning rundown, but umpire Tim Welke mistakenly ruled Rollins safe. Longoria whiffed three times in four at-bats, and the only ball he hit hard was a long, loud foul against Ryan Madson in the eighth.
Floyd, the Rays' resident voice of reason, gave Longoria only one piece of advice before the World Series: Enjoy the experience no matter what happens, because you never know if you'll make it back again.
"So much has happened to him, it's kind of hard to go up to him and say, 'Hit the ball to right field,'" Floyd said. "Oh really? He's hit eight balls to left field that went nine miles [this postseason]. I'm not crazy."
Longoria has dutifully followed Floyd's advice. He comes to the park each day hoping to bust out, and is determined to stick to his usual routine. If the World Series ends badly, it won't be because he's timid or overwhelmed by the big stage.
"Me and Carlos do a lot of joking," Longoria said. "The fact of the matter is, we're gonna come out of this or we're not gonna come out of it. Whether we do or don't, we have to keep swinging the bat. You can't go up there with the bat on your shoulder hoping you're going to come out of a slump. It just doesn't happen that way."
Pena derives a bit of hope from the American League Championship Series, when the Rays were in the commanding position the Phillies are enjoying right now. The Boston Red Sox, trailing three games to one and down 7-0 with seven outs to go in Game 5, rallied to win and extend the series to seven games before being eliminated.
Pena keeps urging his younger teammates to concentrate on doing their jobs -- focusing on the "process," above all else -- and trusting that their talent and persistence will win out and allow them to inject some drama in this World Series.
"When you start looking in the mirror and asking yourself all these questions -- 'Why this? Why that?' -- that's a never-ending black hole," Pena said. "Why even waste your time going that route? We just know what's right, so why not just focus on what's right and try to do that?"
The first step begins with Game 5 on Monday night. Then the Rays will take a flight home to Florida either way. The only question is whether the Phillies will join them for another game Wednesday, or if they'll make the trip alone.
1hTony Lee, Special to ESPN.com