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Joe Henderson Columns

Column: Upton's lack of hustle a problem Rays don't need

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Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 06:25 AM
ST. PETERSBURG -

The ball just hit by Arizona's Rusty Ryal was rolling toward the deepest part of Tropicana Field, that spot near left-center field where the wall juts out suddenly. And there was B.J. Upton, in casual pursuit while Ryal motored around for a triple.

Not again. Please, not this again. Not from B.J. Upton.

The least anyone paying for a ticket to a big-league baseball game has a right to expect is hustle. We've seen B.J. fail to fulfill that basic requirement before and now it has happened again. How many more times? I suppose that depends how seriously the Tampa Bay Rays' management wants to take this latest affront.

Look, I like B.J. Upton and I believe he receives more than his share of unfair criticism. There was nothing unfair about what happened here Sunday, though, starting with the way third baseman Evan Longoria called him out in the dugout between innings after the triple.

Pretty soon there was a lot of pointing and screaming words we probably can't repeat in polite settings. Willy Aybar had to bearhug Upton to keep things from getting completely out of hand, but the point had been made.

Could Upton have cut the ball off? Maybe.

Did it cost the Rays the game? Probably not. Gerardo Parra followed the excitement with a two-run homer, so Ryal would have scored just as easily from second as he did from third.

It's just more stuff piled on a team going south faster than a Michigan snowbird two days before Thanksgiving, though. Rays manager Joe Maddon, speaking evenly after the Rays' 2-1 loss to the last-place Diamondbacks, noted that Upton "just did not run as hard as he possibly could after the ball. That was obvious."

It was obvious in 2008, too, when Upton was benched three times in two weeks for a lack of hustle.

Upton and Longoria talked it out afterward, then came forth with their best "boys will be boys" spin.

"It's already buried," Longoria said. "B.J. is probably my closest friend on the team. As far as it carrying over into tomorrow or the next day, we've talked about it, it's done, it's buried, and we move on."

Upton, who was swung toward right field on the play, apparently thought left fielder Matt Joyce would take the play.

There are a couple of problems with that: That was Upton's ball all the way, and even he admitted to a mistake in assuming Joyce would make the play. Even if there was a miscommunication, that doesn't excuse the way Upton meandered after the ball.

Making it worse, he was picked off first base following a walk, then just missed what would have been a happy ending when his bid for a walk-off homer in the ninth fell a few feet short.

Upton first sent word to reporters in the clubhouse that he'd have nothing to say, only to change his mind a few minutes later. His teammates had mostly left the room by then, many of them either declining to say anything on the subject or talking around it. Upton wasn't much more illuminating.

"You know what? It doesn't even matter. At this point, it doesn't matter," he said, when someone asked what Longoria had said to set him off.

"We just disagreed, talked about it, we're done with it, and move on. We can't have these types of distractions when we're trying to win ballgames in the middle of a pennant race."

Well, that's true. The problem is, B.J. is the distraction.

I'm really starting to wonder about his future here. We talk a lot about his talent but the production at the plate hasn't been there. He's hitting .223 after Sunday's 0-for-3 - and 0-for-9 with three walks in the series. That may just be who he is.

He still battles with the strike zone; he struck out looking in one at-bat in this game. We've seen that before, too. Thirty-five percent of his strikeouts are of the caught-looking variety. The big-league average is 26 percent. He swings at the first pitch 41 percent of the time. The average is 28.

Combine all that with incidents like this and it's becoming a huge headache for the Rays. Maddon's tone and demeanor afterward suggested that we haven't heard the last of this.

"It's up to me to handle it properly," Maddon said.

That leaves a lot of room, especially for a fan base that has seen enough of this from one of the Rays' most important players.

Then again, if we can't count on Upton to fulfill the most basic requirement of being a big-leaguer, how important to the Rays' future can he really be?

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