PORT CHARLOTTE — In the second of three at-bats on a practice field in the back corner of the Charlotte Sports Park on Thursday afternoon, B.J. Upton swung and missed at a fastball from Orioles minor-league right-hander David Hernandez, slapped his bat and headed back to the fenced-in dugout.
And it might have been the most important development of the day for the Rays.
Upton's recovery from left shoulder surgery is a key to the team's continued success, and this game, his first since the Nov. 11 procedure to repair his labrum, was the next stage. He is encouraged enough by his recent progress, including his 0-for-3 Thursday, that he hopes to play in a major-league exhibition next week — "The way it feels today, I don't see any reason that I can't." — and retains the possibility of being ready for the April 6 opener.
Upton, 24, has been taking batting practice and had a breakthrough Wednesday, when he was finally able to swing at the low and outside pitch with no pain or worries. "I pretty much took the swing I'd been looking to take all spring," he said.
He took that excitedly into Thursday's Triple-A exhibition but still was concerned about what would happen when he took a full swing and missed, a motion that caused him pain in the past.
He grounded back to the mound in his first at-bat and hit a line drive deflected by the pitcher and turned into an out in his third. But in-between was one of the best strikeouts of his career.
"I took my normal swing and I didn't feel anything, so it's another roadblock we've passed," Upton said. "I really had no idea how it was going to feel, and to finally get it out of the way, it feels good."
The Rays, naturally, are being cautious (even having Upton ride in a golf cart to and from the back field) and shy about timetables. Manager Joe Maddon acknowledged that he is planning to be without Upton at least the first week of the regular season — and would happily adjust.
"We talk about being patient with it, and I want to continue to be that," Maddon said, noting they not only want to be sure he is healthy but able to play on an everyday basis.
Whenever Upton returns, the Rays are well aware of what type of impact he can have.
The show he put on in the postseason, with the shoulder rested but still weak, was stunning. He hit an American League-record-tying seven homers (in 66 at-bats), knocked in 16 runs, hit .288, stole six bases, scored 16 runs, and played all 142 innings of the 16 games, and played well in centerfield.
"He can impact a game in so many different ways when he's healthy," Maddon said, with talk of a 30-homer/30-steal season and a Gold Glove not far-fetched.
Maddon sees a more mature and confident Upton, one who has a better sense of his place in the game and the value of doing things properly (like hustling to first base), and one who has learned from adversity.
"I'd like to believe that with all of that you're going to see a more finished product this year," Maddon said.
"And I don't know what he's going to do this year, but he's not even close to really reaching all of his potentials."
The shoulder was so weak at times last season that Upton was essentially in the lineup for his defense and limited offense. Now he relishes the idea of again being a complete player.
"Hopefully," he said, "I can come back healthy this year and hold it together for a full season."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.