Rays' powerful duo in elite company
Upton, Longoria one homer shy of playoff record for teammates
ST. PETERSBURG -- Evan Longoria was returning to the cramped visiting dugout at Fenway Park after clubbing his ALCS Game 5 home run off Daisuke Matsuzaka when his eyes locked on B.J. Upton, who had hit a first-inning shot to put the Rays up early against the Red Sox.
"Anything you can do, I can do better," Eric Hinske crowed, in sing-song style.
All month long, the Rays have turned the baseball world on its ear by clubbing their way to the World Series as a team. But the intriguing sideshow has been the back-and-forth jockeying of Longoria and Upton, who each have stepped into rich power grooves at just the right time.
"It's been fun -- a lot," Upton said. "We joke about it. We have fun with it and we wish the best for every one of us. We've kind of been winning on the little things all year. For us to come out and be hitting home runs in the postseason like this, I never thought would happen."
There has been some lightning in those Tampa Bay bats. Longoria and Upton combined to hit 13 home runs so far this postseason, and with at least four games left to play as the World Series gets under way Wednesday, they will have opportunities to narrow ground on the all-time record for October teammates.
Only Rich Aurilia and Barry Bonds combined for more home runs in a single playoff campaign, belting 14 homers in the 2002 postseason as the Giants progressed to the World Series against the Angels.
Yet the power displays have not been completely unexpected for the Rays, who were well aware of the potential both players had before setting foot on the national stage.
"I've been here for a long time, and I've seen it," Rays outfielder Jonny Gomes said. "I've seen B.J. go on these power stints. I've seen Evan hit balls to the moon off good pitchers. We've won on pitching and defense all year, and now we've got some guys hitting home runs. This is going to throw a wrench in some people's game plans."
|Courtesy of SABR|
Upton needed 531 regular season at-bats to hit nine homers, but he was only one season removed from connecting for 24 blasts in 129 games for Tampa Bay in 2007.
"B.J., definitely, I think everybody kind of looked at him as the two-hole slap hitter," Longoria said. "Nobody really remembers that he hit 20 home runs last year and produced a whole lot of power. I think we all knew it was there, but it was just a matter of time before it all came out and he could show everybody that he still had it in him."
The key was getting back to 100 percent -- or as close as possible, said Rays hitting coach Steve Henderson.
"B.J. had been hurt most of the year, and I think he's just healthy now," Henderson said. "Longoria is healthy, too, after having a broken wrist. They haven't made that many adjustments -- they're just doing what they're always doing. They're getting in a good position now. Health is the main thing and they're both healthy."
In September, it was revealed that Upton had played through much of the season with a torn labrum in his left shoulder, which will in all likelihood, require surgery after the Rays' run is complete.
Said Rays manager Joe Maddon: "If you saw B.J. last year, what you saw in the playoffs was similar to what I had seen last year. B.J. had been hurt most of this year with his shoulder and was not really well enough to do what you're seeing right now."
To help give Upton rest when needed, Maddon said the Rays backed off on his batting practice sessions, though the formula was actually arrived upon in a roundabout way during a July 24-27 series against the Royals.
"That was an accident," Maddon said. "In Kansas City, it was 110 [degrees] every day, so he didn't hit, but had really good games. We took his advice. He said, 'I feel better without swinging as much.'"
That has left plenty in the tank as the Rays surged to the World Series, three weeks after making their first postseason appearance. To outsiders, Longoria's surge has been less surprising, after hitting 27 home runs in his rookie season and making good on his promise as one of the game's best infield prospects.
Henderson said that Longoria may have performed even better if not for a fractured wrist that interrupted his campaign on Aug. 7. Longoria returned to action on Sept. 13 for a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium. Though he only logged 67 plate appearances the rest of the way, he did belt five home runs, providing a sign of things to come.
"It never really had a chance to affect me, because I didn't play hurt," Longoria said. "Once I came off the DL, I was pretty much healed already. We pretty much did it the right way and the training staff did a good job of really getting me back to full strength and not making me go through too much playing through pain.
"It's always tough when you come off an injury, because I didn't go through a rehab stint. It takes a few at-bats to get back into the groove, but I felt healthy, that's the big thing. I could swing the bat at 100 percent."
Both Longoria and Upton hit four home runs apiece in the ALCS against Boston, setting a record for the most by any duo in a single postseason series. Upton's seven playoff home runs have already tied Troy Glaus' showing with the 2002 Angels for the most by an American League player in a single postseason.
With another blast in the upcoming series against the Phillies, Upton would equal the overall mark of eight, set by Bonds with the 2002 Giants and Carlos Beltran with the 2004 Astros. Four of Upton's home runs came off Boston hurlers in the ALCS, though he said that he has mostly been getting lucky with hittable pitches.
"It's kind of what I expected of myself," Upton said. "It's been kind of an up and down year. I've been battling all year. I think at the right time, I've kind of gotten hot."
Longoria's six postseason home runs are a record for a rookie in a single postseason, surpassing the previous mark of four, set by Miguel Cabrera with the 2003 Marlins. He homered in four consecutive ALCS games -- Games 2 through 5 -- to tie a LCS record.
"He's amazing," said Rays pitcher James Shields. "The way he stays back on breaking balls and the way he makes adjustments throughout the at-bat ... The guy might throw a breaking ball and fool him the first time, but you ain't going to fool him the second time. So he's been doing a great job all around."
Asked just where the limit might be for the Rays' dynamic duo, Henderson paused a beat and pointed to the ceiling of the Rays clubhouse. You can't see it anywhere within Tropicana Field, but Henderson surely meant the sky.
"Believe me, these guys have as much power as anybody playing," Maddon said. "These two young men are very impressive. They're extremely talented and I just think this is the beginning. I'm not being very bright by saying that. These guys are really talented, and you'll keep seeing them getting better every year."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.