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Upton cresting at perfect time for Rays

Upton cresting at perfect time for Rays

CHICAGO -- With beads of champagne rolling down his face, B.J. Upton stood off to the side, smiling and answering questions, while watching his Tampa Bay teammates engage in a wild celebration inside the visitors' clubhouse at U.S. Cellular Field.

Yes, this had been the biggest game of Upton's life.

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"So far," Upton said softly on Monday night. "Hopefully, I can play a couple more years. But, so far, this is definitely it."

Upton was instrumental in the Rays' 6-2 victory over the White Sox in Game 4 of the American League Division Series. The center fielder continued to come on offensively at the most opportune time, slamming two home runs to help send Tampa Bay to the AL Championship Series.

The pair of blasts gave Upton three long balls in a span of four at-bats and made him only the 20th player in baseball history to clear the fence at least three times in a Division Series. It was a strong showing that comes in what's been a trying season for the young outfielder, who has played through a nagging left shoulder injury for months.

Along the way, Upton has earned respect around his clubhouse.

"Let me tell you something," Rays first baseman Carlos Pena said. "He's been playing with that sore shoulder all year. Nobody really knows that but him and his teammates. So, you know what? I have so much respect for B.J. He's a great, great player.

"Look what he's done for us today and in this series. He played so well. He's a big reason why we actually made it to the playoffs, because he just kept on coming and never complained. This guy deserves all the credit and he's earned all his teammates' respect."

Division Series Home Run Leaders
1995SEA-NYYKen Griffey Jr. (SEA)5
1996NYY-TEXJuan Gonzalez (TEX)5
1999BOS-CLEJim Thome (CLE)4
2004HOU-ATLCarlos Beltran (HOU)4
1995SEA-NYYPaul O'Neill (NYY)3
1995ATL-COLMarquis Grissom (ATL)3
1995ATL-COLVinny Castilla (COL)3
1996NYY-TEXBernie Williams (NYY)3
1996STL-SD Ken Caminiti (SD)3
1998CLE-BOSNomar Garciaparra (BOS)3
1998SD-HOUJim Leyritz (SD)3
1999BOS-CLEJohn Valentin (BOS)3
1999ATL-HOUKen Caminiti (HOU)3
1999NYM-ARIEdgardo Alfonso (NYM)3
2002ANA-NYYTroy Glaus (ANA)3
2002SF-ATLBarry Bonds (SF) 3
2003BOS-OAKTodd Walker (BOS) 3
2004STL-LADShawn Green (LAD) 3
2005LAA-NYYBengie Molina (LAA) 3
2008CWS-TBB.J. Upton (TB)3

Until the offseason arrives and provides Upton with a much-needed respite, rest has been the only prescription for his ongoing shoulder problem. Since August, Tampa Bay has permitted Upton to take fewer swings in the batting cage in an effort to regain some of his strength.

Upton will likely require surgery on his arm after the season, but that hasn't been enough to convince him to ask out of the lineup.

"It's definitely been a speed bump," Upton said. "But I've just got to take what I can get, and that's kind of what I'm doing right now. There's nothing much I can do about it until after the season is done with.

"My dad always told me, 'Don't be a punk. The little injuries, play through it.' That's kind of the way I've been all my life and, for us to come this far this year, it's too late to stop now."

If the past two games of this ALDS against the White Sox are any indication, Upton appears to be feeling much more comfortable at the plate. That could prove critical to a Tampa Bay squad that is trying to complete an improbable journey to the World Series

"We could use him at a very high level," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "And that's where he is playing right now."

During Game 3 on Sunday, the 24-year-old Upton slammed the first pitch he received from Chicago lefty John Danks in the seventh inning deep to left field for a two-run home run. The Rays lost, 5-3, but it was still a positive sign from the young outfielder. The blast was only Upton's second homer in a span of 31 games.

Upton needed just two more trips to the plate to go yard again.

In the first inning of Monday's Game 4, Upton drilled a 2-1 pitch from Chicago right-hander Gavin Floyd over the left-field wall for a solo shot -- his third extra-base hit in as many games. In the third, Upton sent a 3-2 offering from Floyd just over the wall in center for another solo blast.

"Honestly, I think that's the fastest I've ever been around the bases on a home run," Upton said. "It all kind of seems surreal. It's something you grow up watching."

With the two blasts, Upton became the 110th player in postseason history to enjoy a multi-homer game. Rays rookie third baseman Even Longoria, who slammed a pair of homers in Game 1 on Thursday, is also on that list.

"He was unbelievable," Longoria said. "B.J.'s got that inside of him. He's a special player."

In Game 2 on Friday, Upton collected an eighth-inning triple -- a hit that snapped an 0-for-8 skid to open the series against the White Sox. Upton said that he's been working on an altered approach at the plate, though the changes are more a return to a style he's strayed from in recent weeks.

"I've just made some minor adjustments," Upton said. "Hopefully I can continue to swing the bat the way I have been in the last couple games. I was kind of spinning off the ball a little bit. I'm trying to work back to the middle of the field.

"That's always been my strength -- stay up the middle. I kind of got away from it until the last couple games."

In a sense, Upton hasn't looked himself all season.

In 145 games for the Rays, Upton hit .273 with nine homers, 67 RBIs and a .401 slugging percentage over 531 at-bats. It was a considerable drop-off from 2007, when Upton hit .300 with 24 homers, 82 RBIs and a .508 slugging percentage across 474 at-bats.

Upton has made up for the slide in other areas, stealing 44 bases and drawing 97 walks during the season, but he still hasn't found consistent power production.

It was revealed in early September that Upton has been playing with a torn labrum in his left shoulder. Since decreasing his pregame workload, though, Upton has shown progress.

"B.J. has had rest," Maddon said. "We were trying to back off, in regard to his [batting practice], to get him strong again, and we've done that. He is starting to get that nice click in the bat. That nice bassy sound when he hits the ball.

"He is feeling pretty good about himself. I've said it all along, this is a wonderful young athlete who is becoming a very good baseball player. I like everything he's doing. He is going to continue to get better."

Upton certainly looked fine in Chicago.

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

{"content":["division_series" ] }
{"content":["division_series" ] }