ST. PETERSBURG — B.J. Upton is showing the blend of speed and power from the leadoff spot that the Rays envisioned.
The speedy centerfielder started the season slow at the plate, partly due to a spring spent rehabbing from offseason shoulder surgery. But Upton has been putting things together and, as teammates say, has thrived in clutch situations.
Upton did just that Friday night, coming through with a three-run double with two outs in the eighth to lift the Rays to a 7-3 victory over the Marlins in front of 20,972 at Tropicana Field.
"The big moments, he's feeding off that now," said J.P. Howell, who earned the win with 11/3 scoreless innings of relief. "He's playing with zero percent fear, and he's looking at what he needs to look at and not seeing anything that's in his way."
With the win, the Rays (40-35) moved to a season-best five games over .500 and an AL-best 32-21 since April 30.
Upton did a little bit of everything, going 2-for-4 with a walk, stolen base and three runs scored. His eighth-inning double gave him 11 game-tying or go-ahead RBIs this season (tied for second on the team with Ben Zobrist, two behind Evan Longoria).
"That's why he's a tremendous player," said James Shields, who got a no-decision.
"He's the best centerfielder I've ever played with; that I've probably ever seen. His hitting is coming around right now."
The Rays got what they wanted in a strong start out of Shields, who matched Marlins ace Josh Johnson through 62/3 innings for his team-high 10th quality start. Shields battled through some early jams and scattered nine hits, leaving the game in the seventh with the score tied.
"I kept us as close as I could," Shields said. "I didn't have my good stuff. But I hung in, and I battled."
Shields gave up one run in the first thanks to doubles by East Lake High graduate Chris Coghlan and Hanley Ramirez. Ramirez also hit a tying solo homer in the seventh, snapping Shields' streak of 342/3 innings without allowing one.
On offense, Upton and Carl Crawford showed how dangerous they can be at the top of the order.
Crawford singled in the first, stole second and scored on a single by Carlos Peña. In the third, Upton doubled to shallow right and scored on a single by Longoria, who returned to the lineup after missing one game with a sore left hamstring.
And in a game that was tied or saw the lead change seven times, hustle plays by the Rays once again loomed large.
There was Upton taking a gamble and scoring from third on a wild pitch with two outs in the fifth. And Jason Bartlett made the winning rally in the eighth possible by beating out a potential inning-ending double play. Bartlett's hitting streak ended at 19 games, but his fielder's choice turned out to be huge.
Two walks later, including an intentional one to Dioner Navarro, Upton delivered.
Upton, coming off AL player of the week, is batting .314 in his past 33 games (43-for-137) after hitting .177 in his first 34. He has hit safely in 28 of the past 33 games.
"Some days you have it. Some days you don't," Upton said.
"Hopefully, you have it more times than you don't. It feels good to come up in that situation."
Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith @sptimes.com or (727) 893-8129.