Upton returns in time for home opener
Outfielder missed first week due to shoulder surgery
ST. PETERSBURG -- B.J. Upton returned to action on Monday, looking fit and eager for his first Major League game since his November shoulder surgery.
"I'm pretty happy to finally be back and here with the guys," Upton said. "Get back to what I'm used to."
Dr. James Andrews performed surgery to Upton's non-throwing left shoulder on Nov. 11 in Birmingham, Ala. The Rays have had Upton on a conservative rehab program, which included missing the first road trip due to the possible adverse effects of the cold weather. Upton said he's glad he took the extra week before joining the team.
"Definitely," Upton said. "About two weeks ago, I was nowhere near ready. Just the [at-bats] and being out on my feet more than normal, it's really come a long way and really helped my progression on getting back. So hopefully, I can just maintain and help this team win some ballgames."
On Saturday night, Upton went 3-for-4 with a walk and a stolen base for the Charlotte Stone Crabs of the Class A Florida State League. During his stint with the Stone Crabs, Upton went 4-for-9 with four stolen bases, two RBIs, four walks and a .643 on-base percentage.
Rays manager Joe Maddon called it "exciting" to pencil in Upton's name on the Rays' lineup card Monday night.
"B.J.'s a big part of what we're doing here," Maddon said. "I'm really satisfied, though, that he also got enough time at the Minor League level to get ready to come back. A part of it was not about his shoulder, we wanted to make sure that his legs were in shape -- did not want to push him physically and push him into a Major League game. The weather was cold as anticipated. So I'm happy with the progress that got him to this point."
Upton said getting his legs game ready was the final step for him being prepared for the season.
"I think that was the biggest part of it," Upton said. "The swing was kind of there. I think I could have got it done with the swing. But overall, just how my body felt in getting back into the swing of things and playing every day is probably the biggest thing for me."
Watching the Rays play from afar felt strange to Upton.
"It was rough -- a little tough to watch," Upton said. "I wished I was there with them. But that's behind us now and I'm here now, just move forward from here."
Upton hit .273 with nine home runs and 67 RBIs in 2008, which looked like a considerable dive from the lofty plateau he reached in '07, when he hit .300 with 24 home runs and 82 RBIs. But there was a reasonable explanation for the drop in production due to his shoulder. Playing through the pain, Upton hit seven home runs during the postseason to tie an American League record for a single postseason, matching Troy Glaus, who turned the trick in '02. And he fell one short of the overall mark held by Barry Bonds ('02) and Carlos Beltran ('04).
On Monday night, Upton's name was penciled in as the Rays' leadoff hitter, the slot where he is expected to hit this season.
"Now, I'm the leadoff guy," Upton said. "My job is to get on bases and get into scoring position for the guys behind me."
Upton said he is embracing the leadoff slot.
"I think I kind of had an idea earlier in the spring, so with my rehab and having all of Spring Training preparing for it, I've kind of been looking forward to it," Upton said. "Especially with the guys they've got behind me, I think it could really help this team take off a little bit.
"As the leadoff hitter, you have to be patient and take your walks, lay a bunt down here and there -- basically, get on base. I think I'm decent at doing that, so that's my goal this year."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.