These days, it’s awfully hard to remember B.J. Upton as anything but a centerfielder. We vaguely remember his days as a shortstop prospect and when he came up in 2004 at just 19 years old still playing there. Over the course of the early part of his career, Upton actually saw a significant amount of time at third base and second base as well. In 2007, Upton’s first full season in the big leagues but still arguably his best one, Upton played the entire season until June playing almost exclusively second base. Only in July did Upton become the Rays’ regular centerfielder for the first time. One game that stands out is Upton’s final full game at any position other than centerfield, June 6th, 2007.
Roy Halladay versus Andy Sonnanstine was the pitching matchup as the Blue Jays took on the Devil Rays at Rogers Centre. But the results were something no one could have imagined. An Adam Lind RBI single gave the Blue Jays a 1-0 lead in the RBI single and with Halladay on the mound, it was going to be awfully tough for the D-Rays to win. But then, Halladay suddenly came apart. With 1 out, B.J. Upton doubled and was singled in by Carl Crawford. Then Greg Norton singled, Carlos Pena doubled to score Crawford, a Ty Wiggington groundout scored Norton, and Delmon Young doubled to score Pena as the D-Rays had struck for 4 runs and taken a 4-1 lead in the game. And then in the 4th, Brendan Harris led off with a single, and two batters later, Upton drilled a 2-run blast off of Halladay to make it 6-1. It was Upton’s 9th homer of the year in June, as many as he would hit the entire 2008 regular season. Crawford followed with another homer to make it 7-1. And after singled by Norton and Pena, Halladay was out of the game after just 3.1 innings. A Ty Wiggington groundout and an error scored an unearned run charged to Halladay before the inning was through to make it 8-1 Devil Rays. Halladay went just 3.1 innings allowing 8 runs, 7 earned, on 12 hits, striking out 1 and walking 1 as well.
The Devil Rays had all the momentum in the world after knocking one of the best pitchers in baseball out of the game by getting him for 8 runs. But Sonnanstine gave a good portion of it back quickly. In the bottom of the 4th, consecutive singles by Matt Stairs, Frank Thomas, and Troy Glaus plated a Blue Jays run before Adam Lind drilled a 3-run home run to close the Blue Jays within 8-5. Brian Wolfe (who had come in for Halladay) and Sonnanstine settled down to toss a scoreless 5th inning before the D-Rays were back at it in the 6th. B.J. Upton singled to begin the inning and should have been picked off if not for an E1, and the Devil Rays took advantage, scoring on a Carl Crawford double to make it 9-5. An E6 later in the inning made it 10-5. Sonnanstine had suddenly retired 8 of 9, with the one exception being an error by the second baseman Upton. But in the 7th, a Sal Fasano double followed by a couple groundouts made it a 9-6 game heading to the 8th. Sonnanstine went 7 innings allowing 6 runs on 8 hits, striking out 5 while walking none.
The D-Rays managed to steal an insurance run off Josh Towers in the 8th as Towers struck out the side but one of the strikeouts was a passed ball allowing Crawford to reach, and after a Carlos Pena hit-by-pitch, Delmon Young laced an RBI single to make it 11-6 heading to the 9th. The Devil Rays seemed primed to win the game handily after Gary Glover tossed a perfect bottom of the 8th.
The 9th inning on June 5th, 2007 was probably the worst inning in the history of the Devil Rays. Chad Orvella came into the game and was an utter disaster, allowing a walk followed by RBI doubles by Adam Lind and Jason Phillips to make it 11-9. Shawn Camp came in to try to escape the jam and allowed a walk before finally getting the first out of the inning on a fielder’s choice groundout off the bat of Alex Rios. But Camp allowed a 2-run double by Vernon Wells and suddenly it was a 1-run game. In came Casey Fossum for a lefty-on-lefty matchup with Matt Stairs, but Fossum allowed a game-tying RBI double. And Tim Corcoran finished off the game but walking three consecutive batters to force in the winning run as the Blue Jays won 12-11 with 6 runs in the bottom of the 9th inning. It was the Devil Rays bullpen at its finest.
The crazy thing about B.J. Upton’s time in Tampa Bay is that he actually did his best hitting at second base. In 47 games and 194 plate appearances, Upton posted a ridiculous .345/.409/.580 line, an incredible 159 OPS+, compared to his .252/.336/.422 line, a flat 100 OPS+, in 800 games and 3460 plate appearances as a centerfielder. But those stats are misleading with sample size being the key factor. Upton got off to an incredibly promising start in the batter’s box in 2007 playing second base, but he was making errors like crazy defensively, including in his final full game at the position, and it was becoming clear that keeping him on the infield was not the best move for him and the team moving forward. It’s interesting that in 2007 alone, Upton had a .345/.409/.580 line as a second baseman (159 OPS+), but dipped to .278/.378/.469 (124 OPS+) after moving to centerfield. Having to adjust defensively to the centerfield position had to play a part in that. But the bottom line was that Upton was hitting at an unsustainable rate for him- Upton never reached a 124 OPS+ in any season after 2007- and wherever he was playing, he was going to come apart just as the Devil Rays bullpen did on June 5th. It’s sad to think this, but it was inevitable.
2008 was the magical run for the Rays. But 2007 was the precursor and had some special moments as well. Upton delivered his best all-around season. Carlos Pena came out of nowhere to deliver a huge 46-homer season. And Scott Kazmir won 13 games while James Shields won 12, with Kazmir coming through with his only 200-inning season and leading the American League with 239 strikeouts. Amazingly, the Devil Rays won just 66 games in 2007 (with a horrific bullpen playing a huge part in that), but even that worked out as it netted the Rays David Price.
As B.J. Upton becomes a free agent and departs from Tampa Bay, it’s time to reflect on his entire time with the Rays, the good, the bad, and everything in between. Whether for better or worse, June 5th, 2007 was a turning point that helped shape Upton into the player we’ll remember as we see him playing out the rest of his career in other uniforms.