ST. PETERSBURG — It would take a lot to top James Shields' powerful performance Sunday, a two-hit shutout of the majors' most offensive team. And B.J. Upton did, hitting a team-record-tying three home runs in a 6-0 win over Texas.
Upton, speaking softly in his corner of the Rays clubhouse, insisted Shields was "still the big story." But across the room in Shields' corner, and all others, Upton was clearly the headliner.
"Player of the game as far as I'm concerned," Shields said. "He's locked in right now."
Upton became the third Ray to hit three homers in a game, joining Evan Longoria (2008) and Jonny Gomes (2005).
But bigger than the three Upton hit, the Rays are even more excited about the broader totals: 12 homers in his 35 games since Aug. 3 (after only nine to that point). In other words, when the Rays have needed them most down the stretch.
"He's not afraid," manager Joe Maddon said. "Some guys will walk away from a big moment. He does not hide from a big moment. He likes it, and I think it brings out the best in him. …
"He enjoys this time of year. I really expect and believe he's going to play well the rest of the season."
Upton shrugs it off as coincidence, but his monster 2008 postseason (seven homers in 16 games), his .349 average over last September and this one, and his 15 homers over the past three Septembers show there might be something to it.
"I don't feel any pressure out there," Upton, 28, said. "It's just going out and playing the game I love and having fun being around these guys and wanting to win. Wanting to win is the main thing, and we're in a good spot right now."
The win improved the Rays to 77-63, moved them to within one game in the AL wild-card race of the Orioles, whom they face starting Tuesday in Baltimore, and kept them two behind the East-leading Yankees, whom they visit after that.
Upton went deep on the first pitch of the first, on a 3-and-0 count in the fourth and on the first pitch he saw in the sixth. After the third homer, with the Tropicana Field crowd of 20,522 chanting "B.J.! B.J.!" he stepped out of the dugout — well, actually got pushed out by Reid Brignac — for a curtain call, waving his helmet. "Pretty cool," he said. "It felt pretty good." Not so much, the postgame shaving cream pie from Matt Joyce, who snuck up on him during a TV interview.
Hitting the three homers, Upton said, was something "you kind of dream about doing." He had a chance for a fourth, coming up in the eighth, but grounded out to third, and, worse, broke the Louisville Slugger that had served him so well.
"That, I wasn't too happy about," he said. "That bat itself had a great day, so it died a soldier."
Shields did his work with his right arm, giving up only an at-least questionable infield hit in the second to Nelson Cruz (slow bouncer to short, bounced throw), then retiring 19 in a row before a single to center by David Murphy with two outs in the eighth.
With the comfortable lead and some solid glove work behind him, he locked in around the seventh on completing what he started, and did so, for the second time this season and 13th since the start of 2011, with a tidy 101 pitches.
"I wanted to finish the game," he said, noting his best bullpen warmup of the season and a good rhythm with catcher Jose Molina. "I felt really good going into the game. My mechanics felt really good. I was just attacking the zone."
Maddon said it was "as good as he's thrown all year." And Upton, obviously, has his most prolific day. Maddon wasn't going to be picking.
"Between those two guys," he said, "it was kind of fun to watch today."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]