RAYS: Upton Hits Two HRs as Tampa Finishes Off Chicago

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 7, 2008

CHICAGO, Oct. 6 -- To join the celebration, B.J. Upton had to run a longer distance than anybody. Another new step clinched, game and series complete, the Tampa Bay Rays burst from the dugout, an explosion of delight. They hopped around on the pitcher's mound. Chicago's fans, treated to a bitter October, saluted them with boos. And there was Upton, traveling some 300 feet from center field to join the team that, finally, he seemed a worthy part of.

Upton's two home runs Monday night served so many purposes, their magnitude compensated for an otherwise disappointing season. They opened an early lead. They turned U.S. Cellular Field forest-quiet. They were "huge for the confidence," Tampa Bay starter Andy Sonnanstine said. And most important, they enabled Upton to deliver on something he'd told locker mate Cliff Floyd before the game: "This is it," Upton told Floyd. "We can't go back [to Tampa] 2-2."

Tampa Bay, with it its 6-2 victory against Chicago in Game 4 of the American League Division Series, is going places it's never been before. It awaits the winner of Boston and Los Angeles. Every step forward, every celebration, represents updated proof that new situations needn't be impossible ones. Facing a team rich with veterans, Tampa Bay leaned on 5 2/3 innings from the 25-year-old Sonnanstine (three hits, two runs) and two hitless relief innings from Grant Balfour, on the mound when Ken Griffey Jr. struck out to end the White Sox' season.

Following the game, Upton reveled. He posed for a photo with his mother in the stadium concourse. His faint mohawk glistened with champagne spray. His two home runs, coupled with another homer Sunday, meant he had hit one-third as many this postseason as he did all regular season. And he delivered with authority. Thwack -- he skied a Gavin Floyd fastball to left in the first inning, easing the tensions. Thwack -- he ripped a high Floyd fastball to dead center in the third. The Rays were up 2-0, and they were feeling even better.

"B.J. really rose to the occasion," Manager Joe Maddon said.

"There's never been any doubt I know in our clubhouse," Upton said. "I know a lot of people have doubted us. You know, we hear it, but it's fuel for the fire."

As the year progressed, and as Tampa Bay staged the third-greatest season-to-season turnaround in American League history, they constructed baseball's most embraceable identity. They were young and eager to please. Their manager knew literature and savored good wine. They admonished doubters the old-fashioned way, by saying nothing.

Eleven times, they won games on the final pitch. In May, they beat Mariano Rivera on a walk-off single -- are you not convinced? -- and in July, they snapped a seven-game losing streak right after the all-star break, one of their most vital games of the season -- are you not convinced? -- and in September, having suddenly lost sole possession of first place, they broke from away from a Josh Beckett five-inning no-hitter and won the game in the ninth, on a bases-loaded single. Convinced?

Evidently, the Rays win games more easily than they win believers. Two days ago, asked to pick the best team in the American League, Chicago Manager Ozzie Guillén decided to talk about the team he liked most back in spring training, the Seattle Mariners. On Monday, Guillén began the game by insisting that Tampa Bay, not his own team, faced all the pressure. Maddon dismissed the logic as mere "semantics."

But all along, hidden within Disney package of youth and wholesomeness, was Upton. On a team that sprinted past all expectations, Upton couldn't catch up to his own. On a team hailed for its unity -- Maddon's "9=8" motto linked a nightly nine-man effort with one of the eight playoff spots -- Upton was twice benched for failures to hustle. On a team that kept proving itself, Upton kept raising doubts.

Upton, selected second overall in the 2002 draft, had a breakout year last season, and it largely certified him as a wunderkind. But this year, Upton's average fell from .300 to .273. Power sapped by a nagging left shoulder injury, his home run total shrank from 24 to nine. His slugging percentage shriveled from .508 to .401.

That's why Upton's recent performance deserves such attention. You might say that, against the White Sox, Upton finally became more like his teammates. You might say, instead, that he even led them.

"B.J. is a wonderful young man," Maddon said. "He's a great teammate, and he's going to be a spectacular baseball player. When we [benched him] that night, it was just, you know, at some point you preach so long and then you have to do it. Again, it's no different than parenting. It's the same principles. He responded great."

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