Upton shines in Rays' historic bid

How the centre fielder recovered from his shoulder injury to help Tampa Bay to the American League Championship.

BJ Upton has had a rollercoaster ride so far.
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TAMPA BAY // When Joe Maddon pulled BJ Upton out of the line-up in August for failing to hustle, then benched him, the chance the Tampa Bay's centre fielder might play a key role in clinching the team's first play-off series seemed highly unlikely. Yet Upton found his way out of Maddon's doghouse and shrugged off a nagging shoulder injury to hit home runs in his first two at-bats in a 6-2 victory over the Chicago White Sox in Game Four - a win that sent the Rays to the American League Championship Series.

"I wanted to try to make a difference in the series," Upton said. The second overall pick of the 2002 draft, Upton gave an indication he might do so with a home run in Sunday's loss to the White Sox. One day later, he stepped in against Gavin Floyd with one out in the first and drove a 2-1 pitch deep into the left-field bleachers. In the third, Upton hit a one-out, 2-2 pitch 407 feet to centre field for a home run off Floyd.

"I just got a couple [of] good pitches to hit," Upton said. "I wanted to get the bat head going and get the bat head out and I did today. "Honestly, I think that's the fastest I've ever been around the bases on a home run. This kind of all seems surreal. It's something that you grow up watching." Upton had not hit for a lot of power this season, although he had flashed it in the past. He had nine home runs in the 2008 regular season after hitting 24 in 2007.

"When he starts to pull it [all together] like that, then he's really fun to watch," Maddon said. There weren't the same good feeling when Maddon benched Upton three times in a two-week period for failing to hustle in August. He actually pulled Upton out of a game against Texas for loafing. Upton had another incident at US Cellular Field against the White Sox earlier this season, when he lazily delivered a throw from centre to second base, allowing AJ Pierzynski to move up a base - a mistake that led to a Rays' loss.

"When we did that [benching] that night, it was at some point you preach so long than you have to do it," Maddon said. "No different than being a father with your kid at curfew. Whatever - I've already used all the analogies. You've got to be more demonstrative, and that's all it was. "It's no different than parenting. It's the same principles." Upton also spent 12 days nursing a quadriceps strain in September and has played despite a left shoulder strain.

"No one really knew about this injury he had on his shoulder, and he's had to deal with it all year," the Tampa Bay first baseman Carlos Pena said. "For him to come out and not complain about it the entire time, always with a smile on his face every time he came out to play, my hat's off to BJ Upton. He's a tough player. He was huge for us this year." The incidents in which Maddon disciplined him are long forgotten, said Upton amid the Rays' post- series celebration.

"I forgot about August until you just brought it up," he said. "My thing is just helping this ballclub win games. "Whatever happens, once it happens, you put it behind you and you move on. That's kind of what I've done. I don't even remember August." However, there's no doubt the White Sox will remember Upton - and Maddon, for his part, has a special place in his heart for the young outfielder. "I like the young man a lot," the manager said.

"I could use the word love. And I know he has a lot of respect coming back toward me, also." * PA Sport