BOSTON — When controversy swirled around B.J. Upton in August for not hustling, manager Joe Maddon insisted time after time that the centerfielder could still be a catalyst in a postseason run.
Turns out, Upton hasn't just been a catalyst. He has helped carry the Rays in a historic playoff power surge.
Upton was at it again Thursday in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series against the Red Sox, setting the tone with a two-run homer in the first and adding a two-run double in the seventh. But Upton's big night was all for naught as the Red Sox erased a 7-0 deficit to deliver a stunning, 8-7 walkoff win.
The 24-year-old has done a little bit of everything in the ALCS. He hit three home runs, racking up an impressive total of six in the postseason, matching the fourth most all-time (after hitting just nine in the regular season). He came through in the clutch, hitting the winning sacrifice fly in the 11th inning of Game 2.
Upton stole bases, and made tough plays look easy in center.
"And believe me," Maddon said this week. "This is just the tip of the iceberg for this kid."
Upton's postseason didn't start so well, as he went 0-for-6 in Game 1 of the ALDS against the White Sox. But from then on, he collected hits in eight straight games, with six homers, 14 RBIs and scoring 11 runs. Along with rookie third baseman Evan Longoria — who, like Upton, also had an MVP-type of a series — they combined for 12 homers (after Longoria's sixth of the postseason in the third inning Thursday night), extending their record of the most home runs by a pair of teammates under the age of 25.
"They feel like they belong here, and that's a big reason why they've been able to perform with calm and permit everybody to see how good they are," Maddon said this week. "There's some athletes that just don't arrive at that mental point as quick, but they have. It doesn't surprise me."
Though Upton's offensive numbers were down this season — from 24 homers in 2007 to nine — he reluctantly revealed late in the season he's been playing with a torn labrum in his left shoulder and needs offseason surgery. The same player who was benched twice for not hustling, who was booed at his home ballpark for supposedly not caring, played through pain for the good of the team, which missed Longoria and Carl Crawford due to injuries for huge chunks of time in the last two months of the regular season.
Upton adjusted his approach at the plate, cut down batting practice reps, and it turned into a postseason power splurge; according to the Elias Sports Bureau, he is the first player to hit at least five homers in the postseason after hitting fewer than 10 in the regular season; he had nine in 531 at-bats. Not even Upton could explain it — "perfect swings," he said.
And, Upton hopes, they'll lead to a perfect postseason ending.
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org