Two for The Show

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

BOSTON – The two stanchions upon whom the Tampa Bay Rays want to build a dynasty stood at opposite ends of the clubhouse. Evan Longoria wore a pinstriped suit, paisley tie and pocket square. He would've topped it off with a fedora but left it at the hotel. B.J. Upton rocked a velour jacket, T-shirt and jeans, capped by aviator sunglasses that covered half his face.

Both looked positively Hollywood, each in his own unique way, similarities and differences stretching far beyond their wardrobe and into their new lives. With every home run Longoria and Upton launch this postseason – it's five apiece and counting heading into Game 5 of the American League Championship Series on Thursday that could send the Rays to their first World Series – they launch themselves into a stratosphere never seen by players so young.

It is without peer that Longoria and Upton – white and African-American, muscular and lean, outgoing and introverted, infielder and outfielder, the perfect complements – surge forward and carry their team, leaving a dust cloud for the geezers on the Boston Red Sox to huff.

"Those two are stars," Rays reliever J.P. Howell said. "They're great, they're going to be great in 10 years, and to have both of them and everyone else on this team, man, it's scary."

Oh, there are others, certainly: Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena and Dioner Navarro hitting the ball, and James Shields and Scott Kazmir and Matt Garza and David Price throwing it. All have been or will be All-Stars. And yet each understands that when it comes to the Rays, where they are and where they want to be, the discussion begins with the 23-year-old Longoria, the wise-beyond-his-years and talented-beyond-'em-too third baseman, and the 24-year-old Upton, a center fielder just learning to harness a skill set nearly unmatched throughout the game.

"Really, it's going to be fun working with them for the next several years," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Because they're both going to be very special players."

Talking in the future tense is Maddon's rejoinder against the excessive inflation of Longoria and Upton's heads. That, actually, is a characteristic they share.

"From the moment (Longoria) stepped out there, he didn't look out of place," Upton said. "He had this swagger about him. Most people would probably say it's cocky. Too cocky. But when you see what he can do, how he can back it up, you learn to accept it.

"I've been accused of that before, too, so I understand why it's there and what it means."

Longoria joined the Rays in spring training with the usual hype that accompanies a wunderkind. His nickname should have been The Next, because he was the next David Wright, the next Mike Schmidt, the next Brooks Robinson.

Undrafted out of high school, Longoria bulked up from a scrawny 180 pounds to about 200 when the Rays selected him third overall out of Long Beach State in 2006. After raking this spring training, Longoria found himself at Triple-A to begin the year, even though the Rays were negotiating with him on a long-term contract at the time. He joined the team a week into the season, locked in a six-year deal (with three more option seasons) a week later and spent the next 5½ months channeling Wright, Schmidt and Robinson on his way to a certain AL Rookie of the Year award.

Then he hit the first two postseason pitches he saw out of Tropicana Field. Longoria wasn't just good. He was great, the transcendent sort of player who can break out of a short slump and then homer in three consecutive games, as he has against Boston in the ALCS. The last, a shoulder-high tomahawk off a Tim Wakefield knuckleball, was a scythe to the Boston psyche and broke the playoff record of most home runs by a rookie.

Longoria also became the youngest player to hit five in a postseason. The previous holder of that record: Upton, who's 412 days older. Unlike Longoria, who hit 27 home runs this season despite missing a month with a wrist injury, Upton entered this postseason with a bum shoulder that limited him to nine homers during the regular season. Tampa Bay relied on him plenty more for his speed (44 stolen bases) and the ability to locate balls in center field like a GPS.

"We all know B.J. has the ability to be a five-tool impact player, and he's really showing it," Longoria said. "It was just one of those years for Beej. He didn't get it clicking. He didn't have the opportunity to get things rolling. So to see him locked in. …"

Well, it's a treat to anyone who appreciates watching a kid shed the talented label and actually produce. Upton, playing with a torn labrum in his left shoulder, worked with hitting coach Steve Henderson on trying to drive the ball to center field instead of overcompensating and pulling every pitch.

To fix that, Upton hastened the twist of his front foot, a mechanism that triggers the rest of his swing. By starting earlier, Upton said, he stopped rushing his swing, allowed the ball to travel deeper into the strike zone and used his natural bat speed to spray balls around the field – though his home runs have all been to left and center fields, five no-doubters.

"The last week of the season, I started to feel good," Upton said. "I got some rest. I was stronger. I worked out some things, figured them out. And then ran into a couple balls."

Ran into a couple balls, huh?

"Yep," Upton said with a mischievous grin.

Remember, he's the quiet one. Upton came up at 19, sank, spent two more years in the minor leagues, got pegged unfairly as a thug because he got a DUI and was teammates with Elijah Dukes and Delmon Young, rejoined the Rays last year and has been everything they could've asked for since.

And Longoria? He'll do the talking for both of them.

"We want to be the leaders," Longoria said. "You dream of being the face of the franchise, and for me and Beej to have that opportunity is awesome."

He walked up to Upton and patted him on the back. Together, they navigated the couches in the crowded locker room and made their way toward the door together, different men with the same goal.

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