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So far, 2006 has been a very good year for Evan Longoria.


Despite a disappointing season on a team level at Long Beach State, which failed to reach the postseason after beginning the year highly-ranked, Longoria cemented his status as the top hitter in the draft, winning co-Big West Player of the year honors. Taken third overall by the Devil Rays, he signed for $3 million, had five hits in just his second pro game, and has yet to slow down. Just 26 games into his young career, the third baseman already has ten home runs and 29 RBIs to go along with a .398 batting average and nearly as many walks (15) as strikeouts (16).


"Things couldn’t be going any better, really," said Longoria before Thursday night’s game at Modesto. "I couldn’t ask for anything more."


Longoria is all the more appreciative of his situation when he considers that three years ago he went undrafted and nearly unnoticed out of high school. He was an all-conference player in suburban Los Angeles, but two inches shorter and a good 40 pound lighter than what he is now. As a result, he got little attention from pro scouts or major college programs. His choices thereby limited, he opted to stay close to his home and play at Rio Hondo Junior College.


"At the high school level, I wasn’t even thinking about pro baseball – even at junior college I didn’t think about it much," said Longoria. "I knew I wasn’t mature enough physically or mentally. What I did know was that I wanted to keep playing."


The opportunity to continue playing presented itself as in dream come true scenario, as the only four-year school to offer Longoria a scholarship after one year of junior college was Long Beach State. "It was great – it’s the school I always rooted for when I was in high school," recalled Longoria. "It was the perfect fit."


It was at Long Beach State in 2005 when scouts began to take notice. Playing all over the infield and filling in a shortstop for an injured Troy Tulowitzki, evaluators made notes to add Longoria and his lightning-quick bat to their 2006 lists, and word started to spread. Longoria
credits not just physical improvements to his development as a player, but
mental ones as well, crediting head coach Mike Weathers and assistants Troy
Buckley and Tim McDonnell with changing the way he looked at the game. "I
didn’t learn much about the game in high school, and even in junior college I
was just playing," recalled Longoria. "The coaches at Long Beach State have this wealth of knowledge, so now I was playing and learning. I think
that’s one of the biggest factors in the improvements I made."


The learning paid off. After an MVP season in the Cape Cod League, the most important college summer league in the country, Longoria entered 2006 as one of the top players in the draft, and he didn’t disappoint. Teams picking among the top five began the year with Longoria on their short list, and he stayed there all year.


Yet even in the days before the draft, Longoria was unsure of where he would be selected, but he stayed calm, getting advice from Tulowitzki, Longoria’s former Long Beach teammate and a first-round pick by Colorado in 2005. "Tulo is one of my best friends. We talk 3-4 times a week," said Longoria. "I learned a lot from him because he just went through this process last year."


For a while, Longoria was convinced that he and Tulowitzki would once again be teammates. "I thought the Rockies were going to take me," recalled Longoria. "I talked to them for a long time and Long Beach State has a close relationship with them, and they had just taken Tulo. I didn’t know where I was going until I got the final call 15 minutes or so before the draft."


In the end, the Rockies took Stanford righthahnder Greg Reynolds with the second overall pick, and Tampa Bay followed by selecting Longoria third. So how sweet was it to take Reynolds deep last week in a California League game? "Yeah, that was nice, it definitely felt good," laughed Longoria. "Still – that’s just one at-bat and Reynolds is going to be really good. Everyone has their day, and that one was mine. We faced each other again last night and he struck me out."


Longoria credits his quick success in the minors to his college experience. "We always played a really touch schedule at Long Beach, and between that and the Cape Cod League, I’ve seen some amazing pitching," said Longoria. "I faced Mike Pelfrey, and he’s in the big leagues now, so I’m well-prepared… I haven’t seen anything yet that I haven’t seen before."


As for adjusting to the mental side of the pro game, Longoria says he’s learned quite a bit from shortstop Reid Brignac. "It’s funny, because we’re the two youngest players on this team," said Longoria. "But he’s a high draft pick and this is his third year of pro ball, so I can learn a lot from him."


"Guys who come out of college programs are more prone to trying to do too much," Longoria continued. "In college I’d do 3-4 hours of work before every game. You can’t do that here with games six or seven games a week. It’s more laid back here, and everyone knows what they have to do."


As far as getting to the big leagues, Longoria is definitely on the fast track. He has an outside chance to play in the Arizona Fall League after the season, and will likely start 2007 at Double-A Montgomery. "I’m trying to stay grounded, but I have all my friends telling me, ‘oh, you’re going to be here or there, and then the big leagues.’ So yeah, I’m thinking about it."


While the Devil Rays may have made a confusing move to Longoria by moving B.J. Upton to third base, Longoria has no worries, speaking with the confidence of first-round pick. "This team just made a major investment in me, so I definitely have a sense of security here–that kind of thing doesn’t bother me at all."


For now, Longoria insists he’ll just worry about baseball and how he’s doing, and he’s glad to have one distraction out of the way.


"My teachers are going to be mad at me, but I’m really happy to be just playing and not having to worry about classes anymore," he said nervously.


"That’s just one more incentive to get to the big leagues so I don’t have to go back to school."