ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - If people throughout baseball think there's anything to this postseason surge by B.J. Upton, then you may not need to rush to the ballpark to watch batting practice in future years. Upton may have started a trend, because Rays manager Joe Maddon, for one, thinks the lack of batting practice has contributed mightily to the young outfielder's stunning postseason.
"We've cut back on the number of swings at batting practice and I think that's helped. You've got a stronger guy right now getting the bat out a lot better," said Maddon, whose viewpoint carries a lot of weight since he's seen Upton play on a daily basis and knows a tender shoulder was plaguing the 24-year-old righthanded hitter.
"The first half of the season, most of the balls [Upton hit] were heading over to the right side of second base. Now, you're starting to see the ball in the left-center gap, which is what he did last year when he hit all those home runs."
It's hard to argue against Maddon, based on numbers.
Upton in 2007 hit 24 home runs in 129 games and 474 at-bats, but slumped to just nine in 145 games and 531 at-bats in 2008.
He tied an American League Championship Series record with his seventh home run when he took Josh Beckett deep in the first inning last night. It was his 11th RBI and that, too, ties an ALCS record.
Considering that it took him just 39 at-bats to do it is remarkable and Maddon, in an indirect way, credits stifling summer heat in Kansas City, Mo., as a reason.
"The weather was like 100 degrees," said Maddon, referring to a series against the Royals in July. "We didn't take BP for a couple days on the field and [Upton] felt stronger in a week. So, we chose to go with that game plan after that."
Gross not all right
Maddon's starting lineup featured his usual right fielder, Gabe Gross, but not for long. Gross remained hitless in 10 ALCS at-bats when he struck out on three pitches in the third. He never got a second chance to hit, because Maddon pinch hit for him with Ben Zobrist in the fifth. Making matters worse for Gross, who came over to the Rays in an April trade with Milwaukee, he was in the lineup for his defense, but once again was not up to the J.D. Drew challenge. The Red Sox right fielder stroked a two-out double over Gross's head in the fifth, very similar to the dramatic way Game 5 ended . . . Maddon also chose to use Cliff Floyd as his designated hitter, but he struck out and grounded out before being replaced by pinch hitter Willy Aybar in the seventh. Aybar, who went 6 for 9 with five RBIs as the DH in Games 3 and 4, popped out.
Upton's blast enabled the Rays to establish an ALCS record for home runs, which increased to 15 when Jason Bartlett hit one in the fifth . . . Evan Longoria had hit home runs in the last four games before going 0 for 3 . . . Longoria and Carlos Peña became the first players to hit back-to-back home runs twice in one postseason. They did it in Games 4 and 5 . . . On the flip side, Longoria and Upton now have combined to strike out 24 times in 10 postseason games . . . Carl Crawford's sixth stolen base of the ALCS made the Rays 10 for 10 in that department, but there wouldn't be an 11th consecutive steal - not with slow-footed Dioner Navarro. The Rays catcher led off the fifth with a single, but was out by 10 feet trying to steal with one out. He had stolen one base during the season, which prompted the home fans to boo the move.
The inside scoop
With an improbable win in Game 5, the Red Sox forced a return to "The Trop," which again got talk going about a facility that doesn't get a lot of respect around the league. No worries, because Maddon has grown accustomed to the building and he thinks it's a huge improvement over what he saw when he took over Tampa Bay in 2006. "I think we've added a lot of excitement to the building. I think it's a fair ballpark," said Maddon, who knows that opponents are frequently ridiculing the catwalks, the sideshows, and the nauseating cowbells. "Our fans are digging it and it's really turned into a home-field [advantage]. I love the noise level. I think it's fantastic." Ah, but it's still a big-top atmosphere and it showed when Upton's home run hit the "C-ring" 125 feet up . . . Surely, a return here was welcomed by ticket scalpers as they got to push their business at least one more night. It should be brisk business tonight, because opposite Game 7 will be an NFL game between the Seahawks and Buccaneers . . . Rays officials removed tarpaulins in the upper deck so 5,762 more seats were available last night. They also reported that 450,000 people entered a drawing for possible World Series tickets . . . Apparently, Tampa Bay management likes what it has in the youthful talent department. In the pitching rotation? In the lineup? Well, yeah, but also within the confines of local musical interests, because for a third straight game at Tropicana Field, saxophonist B.K. Jackson performed the national anthem. Jackson, 17, is a senior at nearby Howard W. Blake High School . . . Florida governor Charlie Crist threw out the first ball. Crist is a Pennsylvania native, though he grew up in St. Petersburg. Earlier in his career, Crist served as general counsel of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues in St. Petersburg . . . Proof positive that you're not at Fenway Park: It costs $10 to park - but that fee is waived if you have at least four people in the car.