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Upton, Rays heading in the right direction

Upton, Rays heading in the right direction
On Aug. 15, Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon made a decision that put the season on the line.

On Monday, Maddon's determination to ignore shortcuts and make this team do things the right way was rewarded.

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The Rays closed out an American League Division Series by defeating the Chicago White Sox, 6-2, at U.S. Cellular Park. The franchise that had never won more than 70 games in a season before this year stands four victories from the World Series.

"It was the kind of story that's played out for us a lot this year," Maddon said. "Did I envision it? I absolutely have to see it first before it ever happens."

It was fitting that the Rays pulled away early on two home runs by B.J. Upton in the first three innings.

Upton was the central figure in the August furor. How he handled it, how Maddon handled it and how the Rays handled it went a long way toward shaping this team.

A quick history lesson on "Bossman Jr." and the Rays.

Upton became a golden child to the Rays from the moment they took him with the second-overall pick in the 2002 draft. (Pittsburgh took righthander Bryan Bullington with the first-overall choice, a pick that has haunted the Pirates.)

Upton, a middle infielder at the time, excited the Rays with his talent and exasperated them with his inconsistencies and I've-got-it-made attitude. The Rays went along only because Upton represented such a major investment and had such overpowering talent.

The ground rules changed for Upton and everyone else this year. Maddon stressed accountability above all else. In a memorable team meeting during the All-Star break, Maddon told the club to treat this new situation — winning — with "respect."

That meant taking nothing for granted. Focus on the nuances vital to winning rather than obsessing on personal numbers. And above all else, always play hard.

"That way, you don't have to be concerned about playing the Yankees or Boston or the White Sox or whomever," Maddon said. "Beat the game through execution. That's what it comes down to. That's the part I wanted us to understand when it comes to the respectful part of baseball."

The Rays picked up on the words. They won their first game after the All-Star break to go into first in the East and have not trailed since. White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen was whistling in the dark when he suggested the pressure of the postseason would get to the youthful Rays.

"This is a special group of guys," Rays first baseman Carlos Pena said. "It's rare to see a young team this poised, so focused on the present. That is so important."

There was a bump along the way.

In August, Upton twice violated the edict by giving a half-hearted effort. After the second instance, on Aug. 15 at Texas, Maddon took the extraordinary step of subjecting Upton to a public humiliation. After Upton loafed on the bases, Maddon let him take his spot in the field before removing him.

Maddon also gave Upton a one-game suspension. If Upton had sulked, he could have taken at least part of the team down with him. Instead, Upton accepted responsibility for his actions and publicly apologized.

Upton's performance did not radically improve. He has been bothered almost all season by a sore left shoulder.

That Upton fell into line sent a loud message to the club. No one was bigger than the team. The Rays were in this together.

"B.J. is a wonderful young man, a great teammate and he's going to be a spectacular player," Maddon said. "At some point, when you preach so long, then you have to do it. It's no different than a father with a kid at curfew.

"I like the young man a lot. He responded great, and it really made a difference in his baseball career. He's going to get better and better."

Upton may be finding his swing at the right time.

Bothered most of the season by a sore left shoulder, Upton had only nine homers and a .401 slugging percentage in the regular season. Upton had five hits, including four for extra bases, in his last 10 at-bats of the division series.

What happened on that hot summer night in Texas is history, Upton said. The future is more interesting now.

"We've always had talent here, but in the past, it's kind of been guys on the individual trying to do their own thing," said Upton, describing his career before this season. "Since spring training, we've been a team. We stick together at all times, no matter what happens."

Look at what that has done for the Rays.

Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:
Added: October 7, 2008

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