tampabay.com

Oh that bat! And, uh-oh, that glove

By GARY SHELTON
Published May 3, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG -- As hits go, it was not a thing of beauty. For the best hitter in the American League, it was hardly worth mentioning.

Infielders did not faint. The fence remained undented. The folks at Cooperstown and those at eBay did not fight over the ball.

It was a chopper, okay? It was a bounding ball down the line with just enough attitude to dodge the bare hand of the third baseman and trickle onto the grass. A hitter's roll, perhaps.

Still, do not miss the significance of the shot that went all the way to the third base umpire.

After all, it left B.J. Upton standing on top of first base.

Also, the world.

In that one snapshot, after perhaps his least-impressive hit of the season, Upton momentarily took over the lead in the American League batting race. There in the fourth inning, he was ahead of the Twins' Joe Mauer. Ahead of the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez. Ahead of the Angels' Vlad Guerrero. Ahead of everybody.

Oh, three hitless at-bats later, Upton slid to second, one point behind Rodriguez. Still, this is going to get a double-take across the league. No one from the Rays is ever among the AL's top hitters, especially not in May, which is when, historically, the big kids get out of school. Consider this: Upton is hitting .370, and he doesn't even get to hit off of Rays pitching.

Yep, that ought to be enough to answer a few questions about Upton.

About, oh, half of them.

The good-news, bad-news season of B.J. Upton continued in Wednesday night's 4-3 victory over Minnesota. Upton dispelled a few more doubts, and he allowed a few more to linger. Once again, he looked like a man who has found himself at the plate and who is still looking for directions in the field.

Let's say this: The kid can hit. If we have learned nothing about the Rays over the first month of the season, it is that Upton looks nothing like he did last season.

Back then, you probably had a few questions about Upton's offense, didn't you? He hit .246 in 50 games last year, .258 in 45 games two years before, and it was fair to question whether he would ever catch up to his potential.

This year, you might swear he has changed his DNA. In the words of manager Joe Maddon, Upton is "a completely different cat." He leads the Rays in home runs, in RBIs. Going into Wednesday's game, he was third in the league in slugging percentage and seventh in on-base percentage.

"The whole time I saw him last year, I don't think he hit five balls hard, " Maddon said. "He hits more balls hard in two games (this year). If you watched a tape of him last year and a tape of him this year, you would see two completely different young men."

It feels like two different players, too, Upton said. Last year, there were times he would flail away at the ball, swinging arms only like a boxer against the ropes. This year, he has gotten his lower body involved, and the ball cannot wait to get away from his bat.

If you are going to be impressed with Upton's growth at the plate, however, you also have to remain concerned about his struggles in the field.

Yeah, Upton had another hit Wednesday night. Sigh, he also had another error.

By and large, the Rays will tell you, they are pleased with Upton's play at second base. He is new to the position, after all, and the nuances do not come overnight. Upton himself says he is growing more and more comfortable at second.

Still, Upton has committed eight errors in 24 games, tied for the most in the major leagues and twice as many as any other second baseman. When you throw in mental mistakes, it can make you wonder whether Upton has found his home at second, or if he will play his way out of second the way he did out of third and out of shortstop.

"He's done well as far as catching the ball and throwing it, " Maddon said. "If he gets his glove on the ball, you're out. His mistakes usually have come on things like relays and steals. But a lot of that is to be expected."

Can Upton grow comfortable enough to move into second base permanently?

"I think he has a solid chance to do that, " Maddon said.

If he can, Upton could be a luxury for the Rays. Few second basemen have his pop or his range. The truth of it, however, is that the Rays don't know. It may be late into the season before the team decides what position is Upton's best.

For now, it looks like "hitter."

For now, it's a start.

Gary Shelton can be reached at (727) 893-8805.