Upton limps in, walks off a hero

Out of the lineup with a sore ankle, the emerging star hits a pinch-hit homer to cap a thrilling rally.

By EDUARDO A. ENCINA, Times Staff Writer
Published September 9, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - B.J. Upton hobbled off the field during batting practice Saturday, favoring his sore left ankle, prompting Rays manager Joe Maddon to scratch his starting centerfielder from the lineup.

Upton spent most of the evening in the trainer's room, icing down the ankle, which took a foul ball late in Friday's game against the Blue Jays. Maddon told Upton his action would be limited to a possible late-inning pinch-hitting role.

That time came as the Rays were one out away from defeat, and Upton strolled to the plate, a shin guard over his left leg. And with one pitch, the pain went away.

Upton came off the bench to hit a winning two-run homer, taking Toronto closer Jeremy Accardo's first pitch to the opposite field over the rightfield wall and capping a four-run Tampa Bay ninth in the Rays' 5-4 walkoff victory over the Blue Jays.

As Upton rounded third on his first career walkoff homer - and the third walkoff homer in team history - he tossed his helmet, threw his arms out in a shrugging fashion and hopped into a crowd of teammates at home plate - landing on his good foot.

"I'm sure at that point he wasn't feeling any pain whatsoever," Maddon said with a smile. "(His) trotting is fine."

"That's the name of the game, having fun," Upton said after helping Tampa Bay (59-83) to its 11th win in its past 15 games. "Every day we want to go out there and have fun and at the same time win. We got to do both tonight."

It was the Rays' ninth walkoff win of the season and the third time they've won a game in such dramatic fashion against Toronto. Carl Crawford hit a walkoff homer July 30 here against the Jays, and Upton won the April 6 home opener against Toronto on a walkoff RBI single.

"It's a heartbreaker," Toronto manager John Gibbons said. "We have seen it too many times in this place. They are the hottest team in baseball swinging (the bat)."

Blue Jays pitcher A.J. Burnett allowed just three hits through eight innings, striking out eight. The only run off Burnett came on Dioner Navarro's homer in the second inning, the catcher's eighth. But the Rays orchestrated a memorable comeback in the ninth with two homers, but also with hustle and patience.

With Tampa Bay trailing 4-1 entering the inning, the speedy Crawford led off with a chopper to shortstop that John McDonald couldn't scoop. On Crawford's previous at-bat, he beat out a ball into the hole for an infield single despite a remarkable off-balance throw from McDonald.

"He puts that extra pressure on everybody," McDonald said. "You play it a little differently when a guy like Carl hits it."

Two batters later, Delmon Young took Accardo's first pitch over the right-centerfield wall for his 12th homer of the season to cut the deficit to one.

After Brendan Harris grounded to short, Jonny Gomes worked a two-out, five-pitch walk to bring Upton to the plate.

"It was fun," Young said. "Burnett was shutting us down all game. We always know we have a chance to come back, but when they bring in a closer who's been dominant all year, you think twice about it."

Accardo has a 5.14 ERA against the Rays (three runs against him Saturday were unearned) and a 2.02 mark against the rest of baseball.

Rays starter Jason Hammel pitched five scoreless innings before he allowed a two-run homer to Alex Rios in the sixth. The Jays tagged Grant Balfour for two runs in the seventh.