Upton disrupts Yanks with his presence
Rays raise banners, then rip Bombers in home opener
ST. PETERSBURG -- B.J. is back.
Yes, a lot of good things happened for the Rays in Monday night's home opener. Carlos Pena had a grand slam and six RBIs, Jason Bartlett -- who had one home run in 2008 -- homered for the second game in a row, Pat Burrell hit his first home run as a Ray and Scott Kazmir put together another strong outing in his second start of the season. All of these contributions helped earn the Rays a 15-5 win over the Yankees before a sellout crowd of 36,973 watching.
However, B.J. Upton brought the electricity.
"[Upton] is in a really good place mentally right now," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "He's was very excited to be back, and obviously, it showed by the way he played."
After working diligently since November to rehab a surgically repaired left shoulder, Upton returned to Tampa Bay's lineup to bat leadoff and play center field. And he didn't take long to energize an already-raucous crowd, which was pumped full of Rays pride thanks to a pregame ceremony in which the team's championship banners were hoisted.
Upton drew a walk on eight pitches to lead off the Rays' first inning and immediately stole second base. Yankees starter Chien-Ming Wang hit the next batter, Carl Crawford, to put runners at first and second in advance of a double steal by Upton and Crawford. Carlos Pena then doubled to drive home the speedsters, giving Tampa Bay a 2-0 lead and triggering a four-run first.
"My thing is to do anything I can do to help this team win ballgames," Upton said. "The leadoff spot, it's kind of my job to set the table. I led off with a walk, obviously with Carl behind me, him on base, we can be threats on the bases. That's what Joe wants us to do. So that's exactly what our mind-set was there, and we got it started pretty well."
Upton pulled out his leather -- and, seemingly a superhero's cape -- in the second, when Xavier Nady drove a ball to deep center field. Upton took off from his shallow position, and just when he appeared as though he would splatter like a love bug on a windshield, he stuck out his glove like a wide receiver and hauled in the blast with his back to home plate a la Willie Mays.
"I actually lost it for a second; I just wanted to make a play on it if I could," Upton said. "I looked up, and I was kind of close to the wall. I have to say that ball caught me, I didn't really catch it. ... I was just amazed I caught it."
Crawford, who made a nice catch himself when he jumped at the wall to rob Nick Swisher of extra bases, said Upton's catch was "nice."
"That was one of his best catches I've ever seen him make right there," Crawford said. "It was at an important time of the game. I don't know if he'll be able to top that one.
"When he's out there, you never assume he can't get to it. I was just hoping he could. When he made it, I just said that was one of the best catches I've ever seen. ... It was bang-bang. He could have hurt himself right there. He put his body on the line."
Kazmir, who benefited greatly from Upton's catch, told his center fielder, "Welcome back, it's good to have you."
"He makes catches like that look so easy," Kazmir said. "He's just so easy with everything he does. It's just great to have him out there. You look out to center field after every pitch and you see him out there. And you know that your outfield with Crawford and B.J., you just feel so confident; they cover so much ground."
Upton placed a perfect bunt down the third-base line in the bottom of the second to help ignite another rally that culminated with Pena hitting his third home run of the season, a grand slam off Jonathan Albaladejo that put the Rays up, 9-0.
Kazmir held the Yankees to three runs on six hits in 6 2/3 innings to pick up his second win of the season.
"I threw [the slider] a lot," Kazmir said. "I had a good bite to it. My delivery, I felt like it was right where I wanted it to be. And I was able to locate."
Wang pitched just one-plus inning, which opened the door to use up the Yanks' bullpen. By the end of the game, New York had used four pitchers before finishing with Swisher, who started at first, on the mound, and he actually pitched a scoreless eighth.
"First game of a series, you always want to be able to [force the other team to use up its bullpen] if possible," Maddon said. "They threw a lot of pitches tonight and that does benefit us, obviously, going toward the rest of the series. It's something you hate happening to yourself, but it's nice to do that to somebody else."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.