Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

B.J. Upton says he can be the hitter the Rays want him to be

ST. PETERSBURG — This is who he can be.

This is why he is still here.

In what might be the last season of B.J. Upton, the controversial one, you can finally see the ability that the Rays have been talking about for years. He has rarely hit better. He has seldom run faster. And he has never looked more promising as he strides toward the plate.

Through all the strikeouts, through all the controversies, through all of the derision, this is the player you have waited to see. The Rays, too. Even at 27, there is a wide streak of stardom inside the guy.

Consider the moment Wednesday, when Upton came up in one of those is-anyone-ever-going-to-score-again matchups with the Blue Jays. Worse, Darren Oliver, who had retired Upton all four times he had faced him in his career, was on the mound.

Five pitches later, on a wicked cutter, Upton laced the ball into leftfield for a double, and Rich Thompson scored from first, and the Rays won. Easy as smiling. Yeah, Upton has done some of that lately, too.

For Upton, it continued an impressive streak at the plate. Over the past seven games, he is 13-for-29, a .448 average. Upton is now hitting .300, the first time it has been that high this deep into a season since June 8, 2008.

Considering the player, you probably have one of two questions about now.

One: Where has this been all along?

Two: How long can he keep it up?

Such is Upton's history. There are always a couple of ways to look at him. He has often been in the headlines, and he has eternally been on the trading block, and he has never quite matched the expectations the Rays had for him. He was supposed be an impact player, a rare talent capable of 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases and as many gold gloves as a guy can stuff into a closet.

It hasn't worked out that way. Upton has been a frustrating player for many. Too many strikeouts considering too little power. He hasn't hit as much as .245 over the past three seasons.

This? This looks different. Yes, manager Joe Maddon says. Upton can keep it up.

"Yeah, absolutely I do," Maddon said. "He's got a good look about him. His confidence is soaring. There is no reason he can't keep it up.

"I think he has a better understanding of what's going on. That's just part of the maturation process. He's a more knowledgeable hitter. That was a tough pitch by Oliver he handled. It was coming in on him so hard that if he hadn't hit it, it might have hit him in the thigh."

For all the talk about maturation, the Rays always have had these kind of expectations for Upton. Since he arrived, Maddon has talked about the particular sound of ball hitting bat when Upton was at the plate. Too often, however, the sound the fans heard was ball hitting catcher's mitt. The centerfielder never quite lived down the impression that he played too often on cruise control.

Sometimes, however, the light comes on late for some players. Other players, too, have noticed a difference in Upton.

"I told you guys in the beginning of the year, he's my click to pick, to surprise everybody," pitcher James Shields said. "He's been working really hard this year, his attitude has been phenomenal, and it's really showing out on the field."

"He looks great up there," first baseman Carlos Peña said. "His approach is so good. The kid is extremely talented. I'm still waiting for that year when he exploits all his potential and blossoms into the star I know he can be. He's already great, but I know there is still more in there."

Hitting coach Derek Shelton said most of Upton's success has to do with a new approach at the plate. Instead of trying to do too much with the pitch, which led to strikeouts, he is more patient.

"I've always believed I could be a very good player," Upton said in that hushed voice of his. "You go out on the field, everyone expects to do well. I don't think anyone expects anything less than to be a good player."

Ah, but can he be a .300 hitter?

"I've done it before," he said. "I don't see any reason why not."

You wonder. Is there a season in Upton that makes the Rays offer him a chance to stay? Is there a performance that makes him too valuable to lose? It would be nice to see. After all, he is making $7 million in the final year before free agency.

Can the Rays afford to keep him?

Better question: If he hits like this, can they afford not to?

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