ST. PETERSBURG — When a man is struggling to find his way home, the worst moments usually come late at night.
It has been the story of B.J. Upton's season, that lonely drive away from disappointment. Night after night, he has left Tropicana Field for his half-hour drive home, and mile after mile, he has replayed all the shortcomings in a season that has started all wrong.
There was Upton's average, which was low, and his strikeouts, which were high, and the fans' boos, which were loud, and his frustration, which was mounting. As Upton would drive, more analytical than annoyed, it was as if his failures would follow him home.
All in all, you might say Upton was in search of a new direction.
Finally, there are indications that he might have found it.
One swing of the bat, then another, and Upton looks like a player again. For the Rays, this is huge. It does not matter what you think of his performance this season, or of his manager's patience with it. In the giant Clue game that has become the Rays' season so far, the only news that is better than a two-game winning streak is a two-game Upton streak.
Just like that, the muscle has returned to Upton's bat. He hit a home run to win Friday night's game, then he hit another Saturday. During his past four games, he is hitting .378. During his past seven, he is hitting .303.
And if Upton can turn it around, the next question is whether his team can do the same.
"If I can get going," Upton says in that whisper-quiet voice of his, "I can get us to the next level."
Considering the season Upton has had, perhaps that sounds bold to you. Despite his recent surge, and despite the fact he has increased his average 40 points in the past eight days, he is still hitting only .192. He has still spent most of the season sitting in the dunk tank of annoyed fans.
Still, Upton always has been a catalyst for this team. The best moments of the Rays have been mirrored by Upton's best moments, such as in last year's postseason. And despite his struggles, it's hard to imagine this year's Rays making a real move unless Upton is a factor.
"For us, he means the world," first baseman Carlos Peña said. "He gives us another dimension."
"I think of him as a season-changing player," pitcher James Shields said. "If he's playing well, he's making the players around him better."
Ah, but for most of the season, Upton has looked less like a rising star than a recovering one. He looked like a player recovered from shoulder surgery, which he was. He looked like a man who had too little spring training, which he did.
The other day, Carl Crawford turned to Upton and said, "You have to think of April as your spring training and of May as your April."
Said Upton: "You don't ever want to make excuses, but in a way, that's right."
It might have been easier on Upton if the Rays had been better as a team. But when they weren't, fans noticed a player who has been designated a future star. And the disapproval followed. There have been those who demanded that Upton be dropped in the order, those who demanded he be dropped from the roster, those who demanded he be dropped down an elevator shaft.
Even Upton admits there were days he came into the clubhouse and checked the lineup to see if he had been dropped in the order. After all, shortstop Jason Bartlett was hitting the ball well, and he wasn't. But manager Joe Maddon stuck with Upton at the top of the order.
"He needs to know I have confidence in him," Maddon said. "If he does, he'll maintain his own confidence. The only time I would have done that is if I thought he had given up on himself and needed a break, and I never thought that."
Said Upton: "It showed he believed in me. I think it would have been easy to move me around. I was prepared for it. I knew I wasn't producing at the time. It shows that he's behind me."
If it pays off, the Rays might be better off for it. When Upton and Crawford have it going at the top of the order, the Rays are less dependent upon the home run. They are more versatile. More complete.
"When he's playing well, we're a pain in the butt to play against," Maddon said.
Also, there is this. Lately, those rides home have been easier.
"It's funny you say that," Upton said. "(Friday) night, I don't even remember the ride home. For once, I didn't even think about baseball. It was just a ride."
Good thing. There are a lot of miles ahead. A man might as well get comfortable.