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Shoulder issue pains Rays' Upton

ST. PETERSBURG — One by one, players have disappeared from the lineup. A broken bone, a bum knee, a sore elbow. In a season that stretches from spring to fall, the accumulation of injuries is inevitable.

And, yet, B.J. Upton plays on. The guy who has been booed for supposedly not caring, the one who has been benched for not hustling, is also the one who has stayed on the field despite hurting.

Upton has a torn labrum in his left shoulder. It prevents him from swinging the bat with authority. It caused the shoulder to pop out of its socket in May, and it will require him to have surgery in the offseason.

And, yet, he returns to centerfield day after day.

"At this point there's nothing I can do about it, especially with Carl (Crawford) and Evan (Longoria) already out," Upton said. "It's a little too late in the year, especially with the position we're in, for me to pull up lame. I just have to suck it up and keep grinding, and do what I can do to get on base and get in scoring position for these guys."

It is a subject Upton talks about reluctantly, and the Rays would prefer to keep it that way. It does no good to acknowledge one of the team's centerpieces is in constant discomfort. Or that he occasionally lets pitches go by because he's wary of certain angles when he swings.

But the evidence of his condition has been slowly building. Since leaving a game May 1 after aggravating the injury, Upton's home run power has almost vanished. He recently stopped taking batting practice to give his shoulder some rest. And awkward, flat-footed swings have grown more common.

"He won't say it, but he's hurting. He doesn't tell me that, but I can tell by his swing," said his father, Manny Upton. "If you notice his swing, he's basically swinging with one hand once the bat reaches the impact zone.

"He's afraid to really let it go."

The pain is manageable. The bigger issue is that it has become a hindrance to his swing. The shoulder is weaker and, because of the tear, Upton, 24, has to worry every full extension could lead to a dislocation that might end his season.

So he is not turning on pitches as much. He's not driving the ball as far. Through his first 99 at-bats of the season, Upton had three homers and a .434 slugging percentage. Since the shoulder popped out in May, he has five home runs in 387 at-bats and a .388 slugging percentage.

Or you could look at it this way:

A year ago, Upton had 24 homers and 25 doubles. Now he has eight homers and 33 doubles.

"If I could swing the way I wanted to, there would be less doubles and more homers," Upton said. "A lot of my doubles have been off the wall or they one-hop the wall. If I could have really put a full swing into it, I think the story would be a little different."

Think about the skills, the strength, the coordination it takes to hit 92 mph fastballs, while also adjusting to curveballs, sliders and sinkers. And then think about doing that with one good arm.

It is an indication of Upton's unique talent that he is virtually indispensable even when he is far from full strength. The Rays have survived with other players out of the lineup. They are 23-12 in games not started by Lon­goria at third base. They are 22-12 in games not started by Crawford in leftfield. Pick any other player, and the Rays have a winning record on those days when they are injured or resting.

But when Upton is not in the lineup, the Rays are 2-6.

"If he's not on the field, it changes our whole team," DH Cliff Floyd said. "We've already lost a couple, and we can't afford to lose him right now. He understands that, and hopefully he can stay in there until the end of the season and then get it fixed."

Upton has, in essence, turned himself into a different kind of player. He steals bases more often, ranking second in the American League with 41. He has better plate discipline, also second in the AL with 88 walks. He is willing to go to the opposite field, hitting the ball to right and center in four of his five plate appearances Tuesday.

And, in his first full season as a centerfielder, bench coach Davey Martinez says Upton's defense is Gold Glove worthy.

"A lot of guys don't get to the balls he catches," Martinez said.

With every subsequent question about the shoulder, Upton offers fewer and fewer details. Yes, it has been a problem for years. Yes, he considered having surgery last winter. No, he hasn't needed painkillers.

Eventually, his answers become shrugs, nods and a small smile.

"My main concern right now is winning, and I plan on being out there every day," Upton said. "Right now, the shoulder is just something I have to deal with."

John Romano can be reached at (727) 893-8811.

Shoulder issue pains Rays' Upton 09/03/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 8, 2008 11:23am]
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