B.J. Upton usually masks his emotions on the field, but Wednesday’s victory felt too good.
When the lightning-rod center fielder of the Rays reached second base after a one-out double and saw Rich Thompson cross the plate in the bottom of the 11th inning, Upton slammed his helmet down on the turf to punctuate a 5-4 triumph against Toronto.
Before an announced crowd of 11,471 at Tropicana Field, Tampa Bay pulled within one game of the Orioles in the AL East, improving to 11-3 in one-run games and an AL-best 17-7 at home.
"The Trop is becoming very friendly to us once again,’’ manager Joe Maddon said after the injury-riddled Rays overcame 13 strikeouts and 11 stranded baserunners to finish their homestand at 4-4. "I love the effort, my God I love the effort. You’ve got to admire the fight of our group.’’
Despite matching a franchise record by placing 10 players on the disabled list, the Rays have managed to avoid a prolonged slump.
Veteran left-hander Darren Oliver opened the fateful 11th by walking Thompson. Carlos Pena struck out, but Upton delivered a healthy swing for the fifth walk-off hit of his career, and fourth against the Blue Jays.
Upton’s third hit of the afternoon raised his batting average to .300, exciting teammates like Pena, who ended the ninth inning by being thrown out at the plate trying to score the winning run.
"He’s gotten some huge hits for us lately,’’ said Pena, after Upton lined Oliver’s 2-2 pitch into the left-field corner. "I love his mentality. He’s been able to separate at-bats, and that’s a problem with everybody. It’s so easy to just take a bad at-bat and bring it into the next one. Every at-bat is an adventure and B.J. is able to focus in the present moment.’’
With 13 hits in his last seven games, Upton has helped carry the Rays while Evan Longoria and Desmond Jennings remain sidelined.
"Oliver’s been very good for a while and he sticks with his game plan,’’ Upton said. "I was looking for a certain pitch and I got it. I’m just trying to see ball, hit ball. That’s the big thing … don’t over-think.’’
Maddon said Rays starter James Shields deserved a better fate after striking out 10 batters and leaving the mound with a 4-2 lead in the eighth.
Joel Peralta came on with one on and one out and promptly yielded a game-tying home run to Edwin Encarnacion before Fernando Rodney and Jake McGee combined to shut down Toronto over the final three innings.
After Jose Bautista’s 12th home run gave Toronto an early 1-0 lead, the Rays answered in the bottom of the first with a two-run double by Drew Sutton.
Upton’s double keyed a two-run third inning for Tampa Bay as Matt Joyce and Luke Scott hit RBI grounders against Ricky Romero, who walked seven and struck out seven in six adventurous innings.
The Rays (27-18) made their 41st error of the young season as Elliot Johnson’s fifth-inning miscue helped Toronto pull within 4-2.
"The errors really need to go away,’’ said Maddon, whose team opens a three-game series in Boston on Friday. "That’s the part of the game that has really been a little loose for us, but I do believe they’re going to go away.’’
Pena sounded confident that Upton’s batting spree is going to last awhile.
"The kid is extremely talented,’’ said Pena. "I’m still waiting for that year when he exploits his potential and blossoms into the star I know he can be.’’