This Game 162 belonged to B.J. Upton.
Yes, Evan Longoria homered in three consecutive at-bats Wednesday night to power the Tampa Bay Rays to a 4-1 victory against the Baltimore Orioles in the season finale, and sure, Fernando Rodney got the last out to set the all-time record for lowest ERA by a reliever and the Rays reached their recently adjusted goal of winning 90 games.
But Upton, playing his last game as a Ray before hitting the free agent market this winter where his near-30-30 will surely land him a bigger deal than the Rays can offer, received three standing ovations from the Tropicana Field crowd of 17,090.
The first came before his eighth inning at-bat, another when he was pulled for a pinch-runner after he singled for his what is likely final hit as a Ray and a third from those who remained afterwards and cheered the center fielder as he disappeared into the home dugout for the final time.
"This is all I know," Upton said after the game. "The possibility that I might not be back, 10 years with the same team is unheard of. A lot of guys don’t get to do that. I’ve had that opportunity, the opportunity to be around great people, people who care, people who care about one another. If that’s to happen, man, I’m definitely going to miss them."
Aside from providing the emotional component to the game, Upton wasn’t much of a factor. His eighth inning single was his lone hit. His one putout in center field was not even close to the "Did you see that?" plays Rays fans have grown accustomed to seeing.
Longoria, whose two home runs in the final game of the 2011 season helped complete a historic September comeback and enabled the Rays to win the Wild Card, tied the club record of three homers in a game he shares with Jonny Gomes and Upton.
"It was cool," he said. "That’s about as fun a night you can have in a baseball game. (Tuesday’s pitcher James) Shields caught me in the dugout during the game and asked why I couldn’t have done that (Tuesday) night."
Longoria has seven homers in the last two Game 162s. Add his walk-off homer in 2011 and Longoria homered in four straight at-bats over the two games.
"I think it highlights how well we do in Game 162," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
The other highlight on the final night of the season was Rodney retiring the only batter he faced to lower his ERA this season to 0.60, besting the ERA record for relievers with at least 50 innings pitched of 0.61, set in 1990 by Dennis Eckersley.
Maddon said he didn’t want to use Rodney, because he wanted to ensure Rodney held on to the record.
But Maddon also said he honor the integrity of the game with the Orioles chasing the New York Yankees for the American League East title. So when Joel Peralta had trouble getting the final out of the ninth, Maddon turned to Rodney.
Rodney retired the only batter he faced for his 48th save.
Maddon said the game turned out as planned – the Rays won, Longoria had a big night, Rodney got his record and Upton was showered by love from the fans.
"I know B.J. was choked up by the moment, and deservedly so," Maddon said.
Upton, the second overall pick in the 2002 draft, had a sometimes bumpy run with the organization. He reached the big leagues in 2004 as a shortstop, was moved to third base and then second before finally finding a home in center field.
He never approached his .300 average in 2007, his first full year in the majors, but his power numbers caught up to his potential this season when he hit a career-high 28 home runs. His 78 RBI were the third highest total of his career.
"If he does leave it’s going to be sad for me as a teammate, because the enjoyment we get just watching him out in center field when a ball goes over our head and knowing it’s going to be caught or knowing that ball, ‘Oh that’s probably a double or a hit,’ and he goes and catches it," shortstop Ben Zobrist said. "It’s just hard to expect that from other people just because there are not very many guys in the game who can do what he does. It’s going to be tough if he has to go."
Upton was able to keep the prospect of his final season in Tampa Bay out of his mind all season, focusing instead on trying to help the team return to the playoffs. But with the Rays eliminated late Monday night, Upton couldn’t help but think his afternoon drive to the Trop Wednesday would be his last as a Ray.
That was just the beginning of an emotional day. He cried as he hugged teammates in the dugout after he was removed from the game. His words were slow in coming afterwards.
"I tried to hold it as long as I could, man," he said.
He was touched by the ovations.
"I didn’t expect to get that," he said. "Being the last one out there and seeing all the people staying, I guess you can say they kind of gave me my farewell. It was definitely touching."
"It’s deserving," Longoria said. "He’s done a lot for this community, for this team, for this organization, and, obviously, I hope that he’s back. I don’t know how real that possibility is, I’m not the G.M. or the owner. I enjoyed playing with him for the five years that I did. He’s always been a great teammate to me. We’ve had our ups and downs, but he’s always been a good person, a good teammate, a good friend. It will be said to see him go if he does."
Upton ushers in another offseason of change in Tampa Bay as he heads the list of six Rays who turn free agent this winter – Carlos Peña, J.P. Howell, Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta and Jeff Keppinger. Add Luke Scott, whose options will likely not be picked up, and nine arbitration eligible players and the roster will once again see substantial changes.
"That’s how they’ve done it over the years," Upton said. "I don’t know if that’s how they have to do it. This team can be good for a long time. I really could. Unfortunately things are done a little different over here. We don’t know who’s going to go where. I guess we’ll see."