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World Series: Rays' Upton takes a step back

ST. PETERSBURG — The problem with stardom is simple.

Shine brightly enough, shine often enough, and pretty soon everyone is going to start steering their boats by you. Just like that, the responsibility for avoiding the rocks has become yours.

Take the case of B.J. and a brand new bag of expectations, for instance.

For once, Upton did not strap the Rays upon his sore shoulder and carry them to victory. For a change, he was not a budding star using the playoffs to announce it.

The nerve of the guy.

Upton, like the Rays, had a disappointing night in the Rays' 3-2 loss to Philadelphia in the opener of the World Series on Wednesday night. He hit into a double play. He hit into another double play. He popped out with the tying run on second. He struck out. And with opportunities in front of him, he did not make the analysts swoon.

Let's face it. In baseball, there is nothing rare about a hitter going 0-for-4, especially against a pitcher such as the Phillies' Cole Hamels.

If nothing else, however, Upton's struggles demonstrate how things have changed for the guy. A dozen playoff games ago, no one would have blinked at an oh-fer. This morning they would be talking about Carlos Pena or Evan Longoria and their opportunities. Let's face it: The meat of the Rays' order was pretty much a veggie platter.

Ah, but over the course of the playoffs, it has been Upton who has transformed into the player the Rays most enjoy walking toward the plate. The muscle in his bat, missing most of the season because of a torn labrum in his shoulder, has returned. He seemed to be one of those players who had finally discovered games that were big enough for him.

Going into Wednesday night's game, Upton had hit seven home runs (after hitting nine the entire regular season). More important, six of those were hit with the score tied or within one run. In other words, Upton was not only hitting homers, he was hitting big homers.

This time, it didn't happen.

In the first inning, with Akinori Iwamura on first — and Iwamura seemed to spend the night increasing the size of his name in the Japanese papers — Upton hit into a double play. Hey, it happens.

In the third, however, the Rays had one of their finest opportunities of the night. With one out, they managed consecutive singles by Ben Zobrist, Jason Bartlett and Iwamura to load the bases. It was exactly the situation that Upton has owned all postseason.

And, once again, he hit into a double play. Hamels later referred to that as the game's turning point.

If that wasn't enough, Upton came up in the fifth with Iwamura on second. And he popped out to Ryan Howard, who reached out through the most polite bunch of fans you could ever imagine. They parted like Howard was royalty. Just a thought here, but if Pena tries to make that play in Philadelphia, he will encounter 33 guys named Bartman and a chainsaw. He might not get his arm back.

In the eighth, Upton struck out.

Look, this isn't to pin the Game 1 loss on Upton. Not when only three Rays had hits, not when the Phillies took a 2-0 lead with one out gone in the game.

But yeah, when a player has been as good as Upton has been, you tend to notice it when he is not. When a guy looks like he's taking over the postseason, is it too much to ask of him that he keeps it up?

Of course, if you want to look at it more closely, Upton didn't do anything in the opener against the White Sox, either, and he didn't do anything in the ALCS opener against the Red Sox.

It is far too early to vex over Upton, and it is far too early to fret over the Rays. There is still plenty of time for heroics. Perhaps all the Rays need is for David Ortiz — or maybe Ryan Howard, who looks like Even Bigger Papi — to talk about how wide their eyes were in Game 1.

If you think about it, this was pretty much the same way in which the Rays opened their series against Boston. They lost that game, too, when the bats went so quiet that babies could sleep during their biggest cuts.

Still, it is a bit unsettling to see homefield slip away, again. And, yes, tonight's game just gained about 400 pounds of importance. Facing an 0-2 hole as they go on the road would difficult to overcome.

Oh, the Rays' advantages in the pitching matchups are still to come. Let's face it: Cole Hamels is a tough day at the factory.

Still, the World Series is about opportunities. And if the Rays are going to win this, they're going to have to do a better job taking advantage of theirs.

That's true for Longoria. That's true for Pena. That's true for Dioner Navarro.

These days, on the verge of being something special, it's especially true for Upton.

>>Fast facts

Ahead for good?

Since 1980, the team that has lost Game 1 has gone on to win the World Series eight times:

YearGame 1Series

2002Giants 4-3Angels in 7 *

1996Braves 12-1Yankees in 6 *

1992Braves 3-1Blue Jays in 6

1986Red Sox 1-0Mets in 7 *

1985Cards 3-1Royals in 7 *

1983Phillies 2-1Orioles in 5 *

1982Brewers 10-0Cards in 7 *

1981Yankees 5-3Dodgers in 6

* Lost Game 1 at home

World Series: Rays' Upton takes a step back 10/22/08 [Last modified: Friday, October 24, 2008 10:22am]
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