ST. PETERSBURG — Throughout B.J. Upton's early season struggles in the leadoff spot, manager Joe Maddon never wavered in his support, saying he believed in him, and that the centerfielder would "catch fire."
Maddon may have caught criticism for that, but Upton said the vote of confidence helped him relax.
And now, Upton is beginning to reward his manager's faith.
Upton delivered in the big moment Thursday, hitting a go-ahead, two-run homer in the eighth to lift the Rays to a 3-2 sweep-clinching victory over the Royals in front of 16,103 at Tropicana Field.
The homer extended Upton's season-high hitting streak to eight games, and he now has back-to-back multi-RBI games after having zero in the first 46.
"I think he's really starting to turn it around," starting pitcher James Shields said. "He's the type of guy that thrives in a situation like that. You can tell in last year's playoffs, no matter how bad he's doing all season long, he thrives in that moment."
Said Maddon: "He can get very hot, when he gets hot."
And so can the Rays (28-28), who bounced back from a season-high five-game losing streak to win five of six on their homestand, including their first sweep of the year, as they head to New York to face the first-place Yankees (32-22), whom they trail by five games in the AL East.
"We've (got back to .500) before and we slipped back," Maddon said. "We need to maintain our traction and continue to move forward."
Just as important as their turnaround is how the Rays did it: a sixth straight strong outing from a starting pitcher, a battle-until-the-last-at-bat attitude, and, finally, the ability to win a close game — they are 4-22 this season when they've scored four or less.
"We've got to start winning the close games again," Maddon said. "We have not done a good job at that, either we haven't made the pitch, or haven't gotten the hit, or even a defensive play. So to get back to the Promised Land, you've got to make those plays, you gotta get that hit."
On Thursday, the Rays got all of it. It started with Shields, whom Maddon said had his "A game" in going eight innings, giving up two runs and striking out a season-high eight. The performance mirrored the recent work of the rotation, which has gone 5-1 with a 2.08 ERA in the past six games.
Like several of Shields' hard-luck starts this season, he appeared destined for a loss in a game he pitched well. The Rays were 0-for-13 with runners in scoring position, putting a runner on second in the first five innings, before Royals starter Gil Meche thwarted the threat.
"Meche just seemed to be making the right pitch at the right time with runners on," Rays rightfielder Matt Joyce said.
But hot-hitting Carl Crawford made Meche pay — and gave the Rays life — in the seventh, ripping a solo homer. In the eighth-inning rally, Joe Dillon — who tied his career-high with three hits — singled.
And with two outs, Upton swung at a first-pitch fastball from reliever Jamey Wright, who said Upton "just got underneath it and crushed it."
Upton, who has raised his average to .218 from .189 in eight games, said he has felt a lot better the past week with his timing, and it couldn't have come at a better time for the Rays.
"I already expect a lot out of myself anyway, but through the struggles early, (Maddon) stuck by me and I stuck with myself," Upton said. "And I'm starting to come out of it a little bit."
And so are the Rays.
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com