ST. PETERSBURG — Before centerfielder B.J. Upton made his season debut Monday, the Rays talked about the special impact he could make from the leadoff spot.
The names of Rickey Henderson and Lou Brock were tossed around — not necessarily as comparisons to Upton now but merely to point out how unique Upton's blend of speed and power can be atop the order.
And on Monday night, Upton came up with a catch Willie Mays would be proud of.
Principal owner Stuart Sternberg sure was. He watched from the back row of the press box when Upton raced back for a deep fly ball in the second inning. "We've got our centerfielder back," he said. "He's not getting that one, though."
But as Carl Crawford said, "When (Upton) is out there, you never assume he can't get to it."
Upton showed why, coming through with an outstanding, over-the-shoulder grab right before he hit the wall, robbing Xavier Nady and drawing a standing ovation.
"He got it!" Sternberg said. "Holy mackerel!"
Upton said he lost the ball for a second, looked up and saw the wall. "I have to say, the ball caught me — I didn't really catch it," he said. "I couldn't believe I made that catch."
Upton, 24, reinstated from the disabled list before Monday's 15-5 victory over the Yankees, was back to his old self, saying there would be "no limitations" after rehab of his surgically repaired left shoulder and that he's embracing his new role as the Rays' everyday leadoff hitter.
In the first, he walked, stole two bases and scored. In the second, Upton had a perfect bunt single down the third base line. He finished 1-for-3, reaching base four times, with three walks and two runs.
Upton's catch stole the show.
"It actually had (his teammates) in awe the whole play," manager Joe Maddon said. "And it reminds you of his talent levels. You just forget the difference one person or one player can make, and he is that kind of differencemaker."
Although Upton said he wants to return to everyday duty, Maddon said he will monitor Upton's progress and give him a day off if need be. Upton said he was glad he took his time recovering from Nov. 11 surgery, missing the first six games, saying getting his legs game-ready was the final step. "About two weeks ago, I was definitely nowhere near ready," he said. "Just the (at-bats) and being out on my feet longer than normal, it really has come a long way."
Upton played through pain last season, with the lingering left shoulder injury limiting his power numbers (nine homers, 67 RBIs). But now Upton feels ready to "play my game."
Scott Kazmir said Upton's catch was especially helpful.
"I said, 'Welcome back,' " Kazmir said. "Good to have you."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org