Tuesday October 7th, 2008

Every locker in the Tampa Bay Rays' home clubhouse at Tropicana Field has a nameplate above it that is engraved with the name and number of the locker's occupant. Every locker, that is, except one. Above center fielder B.J. Upton's locker, in the back corner of the clubhouse, is a strip of white athletic tape with these words written in black magic marker: "OCHO CINCO 85."

The soft-spoken Upton laughed the other day when asked to explain it. "I got the mohawk" -- Upton was the second Ray, after Akinori Iwamura, to embrace the hairstyle that soon became a fad among his teammates and then Tampa Bay's fanbase -- "and Rocco [Baldelli] came over here and put an Ocho Cinco sticker on my locker. He says I look like him."

One had to wonder, though, if the similarities between Upton and Bengals wideout Chad Ocho Cinco (nee Johnson) were deeper, and potentially more troubling, than that. Both Johnson and Upton are preternaturally gifted athletes who sometimes draw the ire of their coaches -- Rays manager Joe Maddon twice benched Upton in August for declining to hustle ("I can't make it any more plain, simple, obvious, black and white... I can't permit it," said Maddon at the time). And both, strangely enough, have performed below their abilities recently due largely to the fact that they're playing through identical injuries: torn labrums in their left shoulders.

Upton's shoulder has been seriously limiting him since May, when he aggravated the injury, but that didn't become public knowledge until St. Petersburg Times columnist John Romano reported it in early September. The injury explains why the 24-year-old Upton, who appeared to be a burgeoning slugger after hitting 24 home runs in 2007, his first full season in the big leagues, had only enough power to hit the gaps this year: he mustered 37 doubles, but only nine homers. The pain in his shoulder prevented him from taking a full swing, with the uppercut necessary to lift the ball out of the park, leading his groundball rate to jump from 44 percent last season to 51 percent this season, and his slugging percentage to plummet from .508 to .401.

Upton dislikes discussing his injury, which will require offseason surgery -- but his transformation into a slap-hitting, walk-drawing stolen base threat (he ranked fourth in the AL with 97 bases on balls and second with 44 stolen bases) suddenly seems like an accomplishment, instead of a regression. Still, for the first two and a half games of the Rays' four-game ALDS win over the White Sox, he wasn't accomplishing much of anything. He started the series 1-for-12, and drew not a single walk. His swing looked awful, consistently inside-out when it didn't need to be. He looked dejected on the field, and the question was not whether he'd come alive, but whether his shoulder might knock him out of the postseason altogether.

Then, in the top of the seventh inning of Game 3 -- which would prove to be the only game the Rays would lose in this series -- Upton, out of nowhere, crushed a 411-foot bomb to leftfield off White Sox starter John Danks, who was otherwise generally untouchable. In his next at-bat, he turned a Bobby Jenks scorcher into a single to left. In the first inning of Monday night's clincher in Chicago, Upton drilled a 2-1 pitch from Gavin Floyd into the leftfield seats, to give the Rays a 1-0 lead. Upton made it 2-0 in the top of the third, homering again, to left-center. Four at-bats, four hits, three homers: Upton's power stroke was back.

Upton's binge ended there, but each of his three remaining ALDS at-bats proved useful. He grounded out to third in the fifth, but allowed Iwamura to advance to second; Iwamura scored two pitches later when Carlos Pena drove him in. He was intentionally walked in the seventh, and Pena again followed with an RBI single. In the ninth he lifted a fly ball to right, sacrificing Iwamura to third. The Japanese second baseman didn't score this time, but Upton's and the Rays' damage was already done: they had a 6-2 lead, which would hold up, and minutes later they were jumping in a circle on the U.S. Cellular Field infield.

Maddon noted that Upton seemed to have his old swing back. "He is starting to get that nice click in the bat," the manager said. "That nice bassy sound when he hits the ball." Even Maddon, though, couldn't have predicted what that nice, bassy sound would produce in Game 4.

Said veteran outfielder Cliff Floyd of his young teammate after the game, in the Cell's champagne- and beer-soaked clubhouse, "He has the will to beat the odds -- OH!" Floyd was interrupted by his teammate Gabe Gross, who decided to spray an entire bottle of bubbly directly in Floyd's face. Floyd deemed the thought important enough to continue it moments later, a towel in his hand. "He has the will, the will to be better than everybody thought he was going to be. He thought his shoulder was going to knock him out, but he made this park a neutral park tonight. He knocked the fans out. The fans weren't waving the towels -- he knocked them out. That was huge."

Upton, for his part, remained reserved, even as Jonny Gomes repeatedly dumped Budweiser on his head. Of his torn labrum, Upton said, "You've got to fight through it, and that's exactly what I'm doing right now. Hopefully I can stay healthy throughout this postseason and continue to try to help this ball club win." Then he added, "My job is to get on base. I can steal some bases and do things like that. The home runs are a bonus, and I guess they just came at the right time tonight."

If they come or not in the ALCS, Upton's already accomplished something that his doppelganger on the Cincinnati Bengals has not: he's led his team to a playoff win.

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