Rays' B.J. Upton among late-season bloomers who could decide AL East, wild cards

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

BALTIMORE – If there truly were a baseball god, he (or she) might grant a man three home runs in a single game or return his wallet through Twitter, one supposes, but not both. And certainly not on the same day.

"Yeah," B.J. Upton said. "Things are going too good."

Two days before, Curtis Granderson had stood six feet from where Upton sat Tuesday afternoon, in the visitors' clubhouse here. (In fact, it was right about the time Upton was finishing his three-homer game against the Texas Rangers, and not long before a good Samaritan would discover his wallet in a parking lot.) The New York Yankees outfielder had tried to explain how a 2 ½-week – or worse – slump becomes three hits and five RBIs over three innings.

Put the same swing on the same pitch over and over, Granderson said. Sometimes you get a hitless week. Others, a three-hit hour.

"For whatever reason," Granderson said.

Upton nodded.

"I agree with Curtis," he said.

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At that moment, Upton was the hottest hitter on the continent. That is, unless that distinguished – and often fleeting – honor belonged to Mark Reynolds.

"I'm trying not to think about it," Reynolds said.

By the start of October, one of Upton's Tampa Bay Rays and Reynolds' Baltimore Orioles could be in the playoffs. Or both. Or neither. There's no telling yet, but they've both reached the month when a small sample-sized streak could run down the Yankees or hold off the other and make their seasons.

Over 10 days in September, Upton was OPS-ing at a major league-best 1.504 and batting .407. Continuing a torrid period that actually began a month ago, he'd hit five home runs. Partly as a result, the offensively challenged Rays had won six of eight games and stayed with the leaders in the AL East.

The same span had Reynolds with an OPS of 1.432. He'd hit seven home runs and batted .323 for the Orioles, who aren't quite as inexpert with the bats as the Rays, but don't generally pitch with the Rays, either. They landed back in a tie for first place Tuesday night.

Hitters find and lose themselves all over the league. Production comes and goes. It's random for most, mystical for many, and chew-the-knob-off-the-bat wispy for nearly everyone else.

"That's what makes guys like Miguel Cabrera – those guys who are so consistent – so special," Reynolds said. "It shows how good they really are."

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(Cabrera, incidentally, batted .429 with six homers and 21 RBIs last September. The September before he batted .256.)

So Reynolds, who had nine hits (none of them home runs) and 30 strikeouts in April, helps pull the bus for the Orioles in September, and won't ask why. And Upton, who endured an 8-for-68 slog late in the season's first half, surrenders himself to the baseball god of gappers and wallets, hits .305 with 11 home runs from Aug. 11 to Sept. 10.

In a month that almost surely will be decided on the arms in New York, Anaheim, Detroit, Chicago, Oakland, Texas and here, where the Rays and Orioles played the first of three critical games, a hot bat or three might also be the difference. On Tuesday, the Orioles homered three times, doubled three times and beat the Rays, 9-2.

Upton and Reynolds? The wielders of the hottest bats in the league? Together, they struck out three times and grounded into a double play in eight hitless at-bats.

Granderson called it being "a click off." Or, for that matter, on. Reynolds narrowed it to "a millisecond here or there."

"You know," Reynolds said, "I think everyone in the big leagues has the talent to play here and hit here. It's that click-thing everybody is waiting on. The past, oh, three weeks probably is one of the best stretches I ever had. It boils down to confidence. It starts to snowball in the right way."

He smiled and worked through the physics of that.

"If a snowball can pick up speed going uphill," he said, "that's what it's been doing."

The gravity-defying snowball gathers passengers. Reynolds, for no apparent reason, begins to limit his swings to pitches in the strike zone. Upton, who can get pull happy, stays inside a couple pitches, and rediscovers right-center field. The focus becomes less on numbers that at this time of year can hardly change, and more on winning ballgames. The team contends into the final month, the hits fall, life gets a little better, and somebody trades your wallet for a game-used bat and a handshake.

"I have no idea," Upton said. "Maybe I'm just a guy who's a second-half hitter. I heard about that for years. Maybe I'm just coming to grips with being a second-half hitter."

Maybe that's not quite it, either. Upton shrugged.

"It's a tough game," he said. "There's a reason why not everybody can do it."

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Indeed, when the Orioles had finished putting away the Rays on Tuesday night, the new guy was J.J. Hardy. He'd hit two home runs. He'd had four hits. He'd driven in five runs.

Surely, in the moments after he'd done all that, he'd know exactly how it worked.

"I don't know," Hardy said. "I can't explain it."

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