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Rays' Upton fights through adversity to new heights

B.J. Upton, hitting his second homer of Game 4, says of his embarrassments and struggles: “I’ve forgotten all about that.’’

BRIAN CASSELLA | Times

B.J. Upton, hitting his second homer of Game 4, says of his embarrassments and struggles: “I’ve forgotten all about that.’’

CHICAGO — They sat next to each other in the clubhouse, the kid and his mentor. And in the quiet moments before a postseason game, Cliff Floyd watched as B.J. Upton grew up.

In all honesty, it had been coming for months. Through the shoulder injury, through the embarrassments, through the frustration. Upton has been learning of his rare potential, and the immense responsibility that goes along with it.

And here, on a Monday afternoon before Game 4 of the American League Division Series, it seemed as if it all finally made sense to the Rays' 24-year-old centerfielder.

"I've said this from the giddy-up: If he allows the game to come to him and he works harder than anyone else in the game, he will go to the Hall of Fame," Floyd said. "Now by saying something like that, I may be putting my foot in my mouth. But from what I saw today, he's got it.

"And I'm glad we got to this point because now he wants this every day. He wants this feeling. We were sitting next to each other and he said, 'I can taste it man. I feel good, and I want it.' I saw it in his eyes. It was different. I was speechless. Because he's not supposed to know what this feels like yet, and he already does."

Not long afterward, Upton hit a home run to give the Rays a 1-0 first-inning lead against Chicago. In his next at-bat, he homered again and the Rays were on their way to the American League Championship Series.

And as you watched him circle the bases, you realized Upton's story might as well be the story of the Tampa Bay Rays. It is a story of youth. Of growing pains. Of understanding what it takes to survive in Major League Baseball.

Heaven knows, none of this has been easy. Four years ago, the Rays rushed Upton to the majors as a teenager, and both the player and the club suffered for their impatience.

Upton was not fundamentally sound, and the Rays of those days were not willing to give him room to grow. The result was a disconnect between expectations and accountability that both sides have been negotiating ever since.

The talent was never in dispute. Upton hit .300 last season with 24 homers and 22 stolen bases, just the fifth player in history to reach that plateau at such a young age. The question was what Upton was willing to do with his talent.

He was hitting .297 with three homers through the first month of the season when Upton's shoulder popped out of its socket in a game in Baltimore. He had been playing with a torn labrum since last season, but now the injury had grown severe enough that he had to adjust his swing to prevent further injury.

Upton's numbers suffered, and his frustration grew. Three times in August, there were incidents where he failed to run hard on the bases. Manager Joe Maddon benched him once, then made the extraordinary move of pulling Upton off the field in the middle of a game.

Soon, the kid who was a cornerstone of the franchise was being booed in his own ballpark. And he deserved every last catcall and jeer.

But it's also important to recognize how Upton came through that month of hell. He was angry, but he did not sulk. He was embarrassed, but he did not blame Maddon. He was playing in more pain than anyone knew, but he never used the shoulder as an excuse.

"He's got tremendous makeup. And it probably would not have happened that way if had not had that makeup," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "You have to know your guys, and you have to know you're not going to lose someone when you do something that drastic. Because B.J. is who he is, we knew he would learn and grow from it. It was a great teachable moment that Joe seized, and I think it benefitted everybody.

"B.J., on some level, had a disappointing season when you compare it to last year and some of the expectations. But in my mind he had a great season. His shoulder affected him much more than people know. He's been incredibly important to this team all year, and it doesn't surprise me that he elevated himself in a game like this."

With the season down to its final days, the Rays may have finally found the right-handed impact bat they have sought since the trade deadline in July.

Upton stopped taking batting practice more than a month ago to give his shoulder a break and has tweaked his approach at the plate to give his swing more power. In his past six games, Upton has hit .333 with four home runs and six RBIs.

"The swing has a lot more force in it. Believe me, from the field it's a different sound," Maddon said. "You know he's getting the head of the bat out in front, and he's playing with confidence right now. That's the really interesting part."

Asked about the struggles he survived this season, Upton merely shook his head and smiled.

"I've forgotten all about that," he grinned.

And why not?

Today, B.J. Upton has the whole world in front of him.

Maybe the World Series, too.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Rays' Upton fights through adversity to new heights 10/06/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 8, 2008 8:13am]
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