ST. PETERSBURG -- While B.J. Upton has certainly been more impressive in August between the white lines on the field, manager Joe Maddon thinks the biggest improvement has come between the center fielder's ears.
Upton, batting .315 with a .393 on-base and a .537 slugging percentage this month, has taken serious strides mentally, according to Maddon. And seeing the maturation of a player with as much physical talent and athleticism as Upton has been a more than welcome experience for the Rays' manager.
"I think he's mentally fighting right now. I mean that in a very positive way," Maddon said. "I've seen him really grow up over the past, I'd say, month. I've seen him really mentally take his game to another level. I'm enjoying watching it.
"You can easily get frustrated or impatient, and you can, but you should not. As long as the athlete doesn't put that on themselves, then you know it's going to come out on the right side. I just see him fighting right now, and I think it's great."
Maddon referred to Upton as now being "in the present tense all the time," putting previous mistakes and success alike behind him, and focusing more on the task at hand. The results have been evident for Upton, who already has more hits (17), doubles (six), home runs (two), RBIs (seven) and steals (five) than he did in the entire month of July.
In addition, Maddon has seen Upton performing better on defense and on the basepaths, despite a blunder Saturday that resulted in he and Gabe Kapler both being at third base.
"Everyone's always going to equate players by what they do offensively, but I think his baserunning has been better," Maddon said. "He's making good decisions on the bases, his defense is still among the best, and all of a sudden offensively, I think he's working better at-bats because he's fighting."
Rodriguez play sure to hit gag reels
ST. PETERSBURG -- Joe Maddon had never seen anything like it. Neither had Evan Longoria. Sean Rodriguez even admitted he had only watched plays like it on "SportsCenter".
The bizarre ball-down-the-shirt play Rodriguez made in the top of the sixth inning of Monday night's 6-4 win over the Rangers was certainly a rare sight for everyone at Tropicana Field. With two outs and runners on first and second, Vladimir Guerrero chopped a ball at Rodriguez, but it bounced off the second baseman's chest and into his jersey. He scrambled to remove it, even saying later that he would have ripped his jersey off if it meant holding the runner at third.
"I was just glad I was able to get it out so the guy couldn't run around third and score," Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez discussed the play with Guerrero, quipping, "Hey man, I don't wear a chest protector out here." Guerrero defended himself by saying he didn't even hit the ball that hard. Rodriguez, showing off the bright red mark the ball left on his chest, begged to differ.
He said plenty of people asked him afterward if he had left his top button undone or anything different, but the only unusual thing about the play was the fact that the ball landed inside his jersey.
"If I put like Velcro right across, I can Velcro that shirt down, and it won't happen again," Rodriguez said.
Fortunately for Rodriguez and the Rays, left-hander David Price rebounded from that oddity by striking out Jorge Cantu to get out of the inning. Since no runs scored and Tampa Bay came out on top, the team was able to appreciate the bizarre play after the game.
"That's great composure on David's part, because you make a pitch like that, you get the ground ball, you think you're out of the inning, but no," Maddon said. "The ball gets lodged in his shirt and you have to pitch to Cantu with the bases loaded."
Zobrist starting to turn it around at the plate
ST. PETERSBURG -- Ben Zobrist has struggled at the plate since sitting out a week with lower-back stiffness, something manager Joe Maddon attributed to a non-aggressive approach at the plate and not any lingering effects of the injury.
The switch-hitting utility man is batting just .135 in August, dropping his season average to .259, and at times he has seemed almost too patient at the plate. While that approach has given him the team lead in walks (66) and third-highest on-base percentage (.363), Maddon also thought it has kept him from swinging at hittable pitches.
"He's not inhibited in any way when he swings -- defensively he's been jumping all over the place," Maddon said. "I think it's just the overall approach that he's got to get back to being more aggressive on the fastball.
"He's hit some balls hard, outs, but I think it's more regarding his mental approach than being physically injured."
Zobrist showed some encouraging signs in Monday night's 6-4 win over the Rangers, going 2-for-3 with an RBI single after five straight hitless games. Possibly even more importantly, Zobrist dropped a sacrifice bunt in the fifth that moved two runners into scoring position. Given Zobrist's unselfish, team-first attitude, Maddon thought the bunt may have helped get him back on the right track.
"Zo's the kind of guy who's such a team player, I know he took a lot of satisfaction in that play. It may have done something," Maddon said.
Maddon was also pleased with the RBI single in the eighth, the Rays' fourth run that inning, and took it as a reminder that Zobrist could easily return to the form that had him batting near .300 for much of May and June.
"Zo's going to be fine, but it was nice to see," Maddon said. "It was an aggressive, really good swing that he was taking today. I really enjoyed it."
Adam Berry is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.