ST. PETERSBURG — Though B.J. Upton was 0-for-3 when he approached the plate in the bottom of the eighth inning on Wednesday, the crowd at Tropicana Field gave him a standing ovation.
Upton connected on the first pitch he saw from Baltimore’s Luis Ayala for a soft blooper to left field that fell in for a base hit.
Rich Thompson went in to pinch-run for Upton, who received another standing ovation as he walked off the field.
After the game, Upton gave his jersey to the lucky fan who’d won the “Shirts Off Our Backs” contest before receiving more cheers from the crowd, causing him to tear up as he tossed his hat into the seats.
“No,” Upton said when asked if he was ever this emotional on a baseball field. “I tried to hold it as long as I could, but I just couldn’t.”
Wednesday’s game — a 4-1 win over the Orioles — may have been the last for Upton in a Tampa Bay uniform, as his contract is expiring and he has a chance to test the free-agent market in the offseason.
“This is all I know,” said Upton, who also teared up in the dugout after leaving the game. “I might not be back. Ten years with the team, I don’t know, a lot of guys don’t get to do that, and I’ve had that opportunity to be around great people — people who care about one another. If it has to happen, I’m definitely going to miss them.”
Before the game, Upton said that he hadn’t really thought about this possibly being his last game with the organization. He would be open to re-signing, but admitted, “I have to do what’s best for me.”
“I guess we’ll see which teams are out there and who’s interested,” he said. “If it is the Rays, then great. If they don’t give me that opportunity, then obviously I have to make a decision.”
Upton was taken by the then-Devil Rays as the first overall selection in the 2002 Draft, and he signed in September of that year. He made his big league debut in 2004 as an infielder, but he never found his niche defensively over the 45 games in which he appeared.
He didn’t play in the Majors in 2005, but in 2006, Joe Maddon’s first season as manager, Upton returned, playing third base in 50 games and continuing to struggle in the field.
Upton began the next season starting at second base, but halfway through the season, he was switched to center field, now his primary position, and he gradually gained the reputation of being one of the better center fielders in the game.
In 2008 he was part of the American League champion squad, who had just changed their image, and Upton’s as well.
“To go from worst to first and see this organization turn things around and become a winning ballclub,” Upton cited as his favorite memory. “Going to the World Series and winning the American League East. … I’d have to say that ’08 season.”
Over the next four seasons, Upton was a part of two more postseason teams.
“I’ve spoken often this year about how much I think B.J. has matured as a baseball player,” Maddon said. “He’s matured as a person, of course, but as a baseball player, our relationship, how it’s worked in the dugout, watching him play the game, all that stuff that’s going on there — all that stuff has dramatically improved throughout the course of this season.”
Ben Zobrist, who has played with Upton for the last seven years, thinks his best is yet to come.
“I hope the Rays find a way to keep him and we can have him in the clubhouse more and see him continue to develop as a player,” Zobrist said. “I think he’s going to continue to just get better. There’s no question seeing him this year that he’s just got better.”
Though he finished the season with just a .246 batting average, he had a career-high 28 homers, led the team in RBIs (78) and swiped 31 bases.
“It happens pretty fast,” he said of his time with the Rays. “It seems like it was yesterday.”
Evan Longoria, a teammate of Upton’s since 2008, has had his ups and downs with Upton, but appreciates what he’s done for both the organization and the community.
“Obviously, I hope that he’s back,” Longoria said. “I don’t know how real that possibility is. … I enjoyed playing with him for the five years that I did. He’s always been a great teammate to me.”
Maddon said that what he’ll remember most about Upton should he not return is how much the 28-year-old has grown as both a player and a person.
“I really enjoyed our relationship a lot,” Maddon said. “This year was truly the year I saw him blossom.”
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ST. PETERSBURG — Friday went about as well as Tampa Bay could have hoped for.
The offense erupted for the third straight game and James Shields made history in a solid start, picking up a 12-1 win at Tropicana Field in the opener of a three-game weekend set with Toronto.
With the victory, Tampa Bay moved to within 4 1/2 games of Oakland for the second American League Wild Card spot after the A’s lost to the Yankees. Baltimore won at Boston, so the Orioles maintained their 5 1/2-game lead over the Rays in the first AL Wild Card slot. The Rays are 6 1/2 games behind the Yankees in the AL East race.
Seven Tampa Bay starters had at least one hit and eight of the nine starters scored. Luke Scott paced the lineup with four RBIs on a pair of doubles, while Evan Longoria went 3-for-4 and scored a pair of runs.
It’s the third straight game the Rays have scored seven or more runs, and Longoria said the previous two games provided a boost Friday.
“At least we were able to take the momentum from [Thursday] night’s game and bring it into tonight’s game,” Longoria said. “It was pretty promising today. I saw a lot of spark and life that we haven’t seen in the dugout as of late.”
But the night belonged to Shields, who delivered seven scoreless innings and nine strikeouts, allowing just six hits and a walk.
The righty first made his way into the record books when he struck out J.P. Arencibia in the second. It gave the Rays’ staff 1,267 punchouts, surpassing the 2001 Yankees for a new American League record.
“As a pitching staff this year, we’ve been the best I’ve ever seen in this organization,” Shields said. “This is my 12th season with the Rays in the organization, and this is the best pitching staff I’ve ever been a part of. It’s exciting to watch.
“After I struck out that first guy, I looked in the dugout and tipped my cap to everybody in the dugout. It was a special moment for us. After the game, we kind of all got together and hugged it out, so it was pretty cool.”
Shields made history again in the sixth when he made Arencibia his seventh victim. The whiff gave the righty his second career 200-strikeout season, making him the first Rays pitcher to achieve the feat in consecutive seasons.
“I’ve worked hard over the last couple years to get my game back in action,” said Shields, who earned his 15th win. “To be able to throw 200 innings and 200 strikeouts is definitely a goal in mind, and I’m proud to get there this year again.”
The solid outing has been nothing new for Shields, who has allowed three or fewer runs in nine of his last 10 starts. In that span, he’s gone 7-2 with a 2.16 ERA, and said he may be pitching as well as he has all year.
“Right now, I feel like my stuff is as good, if not better than it was at the beginning of the season, so that’s good timing,” Shields said. “This is what I condition myself to do every single year.”
Tampa Bay didn’t waste any time getting on the scoreboard. In the first with two down, Ben Zobrist blasted a 2-1 offering from Jays starter Carlos Villanueva to the seats in right field for his 18th homer on the year.
In the second, Tampa Bay kept rolling. With two men on, Carlos Pena cranked a triple to center that scored both runners. Jose Molina then showed off his power stroke with a homer to left-center, giving the Rays a 5-0 advantage.
The scoring continued in the third, which began with a Longoria single, a Matt Joyce walk and another Jeff Keppinger hit to load the bases. Scott then drove a ball to deep center field that bounced off Colby Rasmus’ glove, allowing a pair of runs to score.
“I felt like I could have thrown the rosin bag up there and they would hit it square,” said Villanueva, who was tagged for seven runs in 2 1/3 innings. “I didn’t let down at any moment, I tried to keep battling after they scored the five runs, to keep it right there, but it was just like anything I threw up there they hit.”
Keppinger added his third single in the fourth, and it went for another RBI as he brought in B.J. Upton for an 8-0 lead.
Four more runs came across in the sixth. Joyce grounded to first with runners at second and third to plate the first one. Keppinger followed with a walk and Scott cranked another double to the right-field gap that brought in two more. Two batters later, Molina grounded into a fielder’s choice to drive in the final run.
“We were on it today up and down the lineup,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “A big part of our success more recently is we’re not expanding our strike zone. If we can continue to not expand our strike zone and force the pitcher of the plate, I think we can continue this upsurge.”
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ST. PETERSBURG — After a scoreless ninth inning Monday night in a 5-3 win over Baltimore, Tampa Bay closer Fernando Rodney put himself on the verge of making history.
The righty is in line to break the all-time best ERA by a reliever with 50 or more appearances record after he lowered his mark to 0.6053, passing Oakland’s Dennis Eckersley’s 0.6136 ERA in 1990.
Rodney, who was also awarded the team’s Most Valuable Player award Tuesday, actually became the ninth-inning stopper because of an injury to 2011 closer Kyle Farnsworth. But after a successful offseason before signing a deal with the Rays, Rodney got his chance and proved his worth.
“I think it started in the offseason last year in the Dominican winter ball,” Rodney said. “I did the same kind of job I’ve been doing here, a lot of strikes, a lot of confidence. When I came in Spring Training, I said, ‘I feel ready to go. If I have a chance to pitch like I did in the Dominican, I think I’m gonna do a very good job.'”
Entering Tuesday, Rodney also held a team-record 47 saves, which he credited to the pitchers that set him up for the opportunity.
“I think it started with the starting pitching — they got six, seven innings every night,” Rodney said. “When you have two innings, you don’t have to worry too much. [Joel] Peralta can do a very good job, and I come in and shoot the arrow and close the door.”
With the ERA record in the balance, there was the possibility Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon could withhold Rodney in the team’s final two games to preserve his current mark.
But Maddon, who had a normal lineup Tuesday, said that as long as the games mean something, he won’t change anything, and that means putting Rodney in for a save situation.
“We’ll see how these next two games play out,” Maddon said of his plan for Rodney. “We’re gonna try to win the game [Tuesday night] as we normally would, so if there’s a save, he’ll be out there. If the game does not mean anything tomorrow possibly and he’s already wrapped up, then I probably would stay away from him.
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ST. PETERSBURG — The scouting report on Rays rookie Matt Moore probably says that the left-hander struggles at the start, but he gets into a groove as the game progresses.
It applies to both his season and his recent string of starts.
Expectations were high for Moore coming into the year after he dazzled at the end of the 2011 season, appearing in five games — including the postseason — throwing 19 1/3 innings with a 1.88 ERA and seemingly striking out batters at will, 23 in total.
This season was hardly as kind when he stumbled out of the gate and into the first two months. Through his May 28 start, Moore was just 1-5 with a 4.76 ERA, going at least seven innings just once.
Moore finally started to settle in June, and he has looked like the pitcher the team was hoping for. Since June 3, he’s 8-2 with a 2.95 ERA, helping the Rays get right back into the thick of the American League Wild Card race.
“I’m very pleased with where I’ve come since the beginning of the season, from not really putting together too many quality starts to now,” Moore said. “I’m getting a little more hungry for the eighth and ninth inning, every night trying to see what those are like.”
His past four starts may combine for the best stretch in his short career, having given up just three runs in 25 2/3 innings. Moore said he only tries to add more confidence, not put more pressure on himself.
“I don’t feel that my mentality’s changed really,” said Moore. “I try to be stingy with runs as often as possible, every time out. I think it’s just some timely defense and some timely good breaks. Stuff happens like that, and I’m just going to try to ride it out as much as possible.”
While runs like that undoubtedly boost his confidence, there are specific game situations that could do more to help it. At the beginning of the season, Moore would find himself in a tight circumstance and crack, giving up multiple runs in an inning.
His two most recent starts have showed the maturation Moore went through from those first-inning experiences, fighting his way out of jams early in each outing. In an Aug. 3 outing against Baltimore, Moore faced Mark Reynolds with the bases loaded in the first inning, but he kept his cool and eventually struck out the slugger, pitching 4 1/3 more frames for his eighth victory.
Moore didn’t fare quite as well Thursday, but he was still able to pitch his way out of a jam. This time, Toronto had runners on the corners with one out in the first inning when Moore balked, allowing Rajai Davis to score. Edwin Encarnacion continued to put pressure on, stealing third, but Moore kept him at bay by forcing a fielder’s choice and a flyout.
Rays manager Joe Maddon has been on record saying that Moore will only be as good as his fastball. Against the Blue Jays, Moore struggled early with his command and velocity, but eventually adjusted his mindset, using his fastball to set up his other pitches and helping him sit down 14 straight batters.
Maddon would prefer Moore avoid such situations, and there’s one simple solution to do better in the early innings.
“What he needs to learn from that is to prepare better for the first inning,” Maddon said. “You don’t want to practice recovery as much as you want to practice preparation, it’s much more controllable.”
Along with better preparation, Moore knows there is still much room for improvement, and it was evident in his outing against Baltimore. After the first inning, his pitch count had already reached 25, and by the time he was taken out with one out in the sixth, it had reached 108. A similar situation happened against Toronto when he threw 27 pitches to get out of the first.
The 23-year-old realizes that if he can keep the game simple, he’ll be pitching in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings more often.
“Staying consistent with working deep in the games,” Moore said when asked what he needed to improve on.
“Twenty-five pitches after the first inning, 45 after two and 65 after three, that’s unacceptable. That’s three innings in a row of not making the adjustment of, ‘Let’s let them hit the ball and get themselves out within 12 or 15 pitches.'”
The way Moore was able to fight through it excites the Rays about his future, and it’s his fastball that will ultimately decide if Moore can live up to the hype he entered the season with. Maddon said that pitch will bring Moore success, and the skipper went as far as to compare Moore to another hard-throwing lefty, teammate David Price.
“When he knows where that fastball’s going all the time, hats off,” Maddon said. “He’s going to look a lot like David looks this year. He started out well. I thought they had bad swings on him early. … Fastball command, if that gets better, he’s in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.”
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ST. PETERSBURG — Evan Longoria’s name may have been on the marquee, but James Shields stole the show.
The right-hander threw eight innings of one-run baseball as the Rays rolled to a 4-1 win over the Blue Jays on Tuesday night at Tropicana Field.
“It’s nice to go deep into the game and get a quality start underneath my belt — and also get a win,” Shields said. “Hopefully I can roll from here on out. … I was just staying aggressive with my fastball and I was making adjustments as the game went on.”
Only four Blue Jays reached base against Shields on two hits and two walks. Shields, who picked up his second straight win after struggling throughout most of July, struck out six batters.
“This is more like what we saw last year,” manager Joe Maddon said of the righty. “Eight or nine innings, good pitch numbers. He didn’t have to work extremely hard. I thought, actually, his last two innings might have been his best two innings.”
Longoria, who is expected to be available on Wednesday, fared relatively well in his return from the disabled list, going 1-for-3 with a sacrifice fly.
“We talked in the dugout, not specifically about how he felt, but I thought he did really well tonight, physically also,” Maddon said.
The four runs scored by the Rays were as many as they scored in their previous series against the Orioles. Longoria was one of eight Rays to have a hit on the night.
“Everything went well, I’m happy to say I got out of the game feeling great,” Longoria said. “The win is the most important thing, and being able to contribute is just a bonus.”
Speedy left fielder Desmond Jennings recorded a single and a double, going 2-for-3 with a pair of runs scored.
“I thought the offense was kinda perky tonight,” Maddon said. “We didn’t start out great, [Toronto starter J.A. Happ] struck out two in the first inning, but then we did OK after that. We moved the ball when we had to.”
Tampa Bay put the first runs on the board in the bottom of the second. After Longoria grounded out to Happ in his first at-bat and Jeff Keppinger popped out, Ryan Roberts knocked a double just inside the right-field line. Sean Rodriguez followed with a bloop single to shallow right field to score Roberts.
In the second, the Rays set up Longoria by loading the bases. He cranked a ball to deep right-center field that was just shy of the fence, but far enough to allow Jennings to tag from third to make it 2-0.
On that same play, B.J. Upton advanced to third, and another sacrifice fly by Keppinger one batter later brought him in.
Colby Rasmus struck back the next inning, belting his 20th homer of the season off Shields to pull Toronto back to within two.
Jennings led off the fifth with a double and two batters later, Ben Zobrist doubled him home for a three-run advantage, which was a welcome sight for Shields.
“It seemed like the guys had a little different spark for some reason,” Shields joked, alluding to Longoria’s return. “I don’t know if it’s because Longoria is back or if everyone is happy that he’s back, but we swung the bats well today.”
Happ’s day ended after Zobrist’s double, and the lefty finished with four runs allowed on seven hits and a walk to go with five strikeouts.
“The results are the only things that matters, but I did feel better than probably the numbers indicate,” said Happ, who was making his first start with Toronto. “I felt like I was making some good pitches. They used the whole field. … I don’t know how they got some of the hits they had, but they fell, and that’s why it’s sometimes frustrating.”
Rays closer Fernando Rodney extended his scoreless innings streak to 22 and earned his 33rd save. Rodney surpassed Joe Borowski (21 in 2005) for the club record for scoreless frames by a reliever. Rodney is now one inning shy of Shields’ overall club record (23 in 2011).
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ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays’ lineup got a much-needed boost on Tuesday.
Evan Longoria, out since April 30 with a partially torn left hamstring, returned from the 60-day disabled list and went 1-for-3 with a sacrifice fly in the Rays’ 4-1 over Toronto in the series opener at Tropicana Field.
“It’s weird to go into a game trying to make it out healthy,” Longoria said. “Sometimes it’s the little things that are important, and today was a huge stepping stone. … There was nothing about today that was negative. We get a win which is most important, I get an opportunity with the bases loaded and have a good at-bat, and come out with a good result there.”
Batting fourth as the designated hitter, Longoria said he felt no pain after the game and wants to have as many at-bats as he can in the near future, though manager Joe Maddon said he doesn’t want to overwork his All-Star.
“What was the deciding factor as to when I was gonna be back up here was stacking up those four games in a row in [Triple-A] Durham, and feeling good after each one of them,” Longoria said. “I feel just the same after this one. A little more mentally drained, but my legs feel good.”
Longoria wrapped up an eight-game rehab assignment with Durham on Sunday in which he struggled at the plate — going 5-for-25 with seven walks and eight strikeouts. In his last rehab appearance, Longoria mustered a pair of hits for the Bulls.
In his first at bat on Tuesday, Longoria hit a sharp grounder right up the middle, but Toronto starter J.A. Happ flashed his glove and was able to force the groundout.
Longoria returned an inning later with the bases loaded and none out and drove a Happ offering deep to right-center field that fell into the glove of Moises Sierra. Longoria said he knew it wouldn’t reach the seats, but it was deep enough to score Desmond Jennings from third, while also allowing B.J. Upton to tag from second.
“I hit it good, don’t get me wrong, I was praying it would go out,” Longoria said. “It kinda came off my bat low but in that situation, that’s exactly what I’m trying to do right there. … I’m not complaining about it.”
After striking out on a curveball in the bottom of the fifth, Longoria returned for his last at-bat of the night in the eighth, when he knocked a single.
At no point in the game did Longoria need to slide, which originally caused his hamstring injury. Maddon said before the game that Longoria was advised to not overexert himself, such as breaking up a double play or running too hard to first base.
Maddon said after the game that Longoria will be good to play on Wednesday.
Longoria won’t play third base any time in the near future, but he did say before the game his return to the field is “right around the corner,” though there is no timetable.
To make room on the active roster for Longoria, Tampa Bay optioned Will Rhymes to Triple-A Durham, while Brooks Conrad was designated for assignment to clear a space on the 40-man roster.
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John Groce said he was working four different jobs when he graduated from Taylor University in 1994.
On Thursday, he got the one of his dreams.
On a risen platform in the middle of the Assembly Hall, Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas introduced Ohio University’s Groce as the next head basketball coach for the Illini.
“I can’t explain to you what the last few days have been like, the chance to be standing up just before you,” Groce said.
“I’m a fit guy,” Groce said. “It was important for me that our family felt like we could plug into a community, be a vibrant part of the community.”
A contract worth $1.4 million per year over five years was reportedly agreed to late Wednesday night.
The coaching staff is still being arranged, but Groce said that some of his assistants from Ohio will likely join him at Illinois. At the time of his introductory press conference, Groce said he had not spoken to Jerrance Howard, who was serving as the Illini’s interim head coach.
“I know he’s a tremendous recruiter and coach and a really good person,” Groce said after the press conference. “I’ve always had great respect for him and his recruiting.”
He added he will try to assemble his staff as quickly as he can but wants to make sure the “right people are on the bus.”
Groce compared his style of play to that of an aggressive boxer. He said the goal is to “knock someone out in each of the 10 four-minute rounds, then come up for air at the end of the media timeout and swing again.” Offensively, Groce said he likes a fast pace, but having depth is key.
“The great thing about this team is that we’re athletic, we have depth, and we can get out there and attack like (Groce) said,” said junior forward Tyler Griffey, who attended the conference. “It should be fun.”
In his four seasons with Ohio, Groce’s teams went a combined 85-56, with a 34-30 record in the Mid-American. His best season came this past year when the Bobcats went 29-8, including winning the MAC Tournament and advancing to the Sweet 16 after victories over Michigan and South Florida.
Groce led Ohio to one other appearance in the NCAA tournament in the 2009-10 season after winning the conference tournament. His team pulled off another upset when No. 14-seeded Ohio topped No. 3-seeded Georgetown in the first round 97-83.
Though his teams have fared well in the postseason, the regular season has been more of a challenge. His best conference finish is third, which came this past season. He finished fifth in 2010-11 and ninth each of the previous two seasons before that.
Before landing at Ohio, Groce served as an assistant under Thad Matta at Ohio State. He was the lead recruiter and instrumental in bringing in Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr. and Daequan Cook, all of whom played on the same AAU team.
In the one season with the three standout freshmen, the Buckeyes were national runner-up. Oden went on to become the No. 1 overall selection in the 2007 NBA Draft by the Portland Trail Blazers, while Conley was selected No. 4 by the Memphis Grizzlies, and Cook was taken No. 21 by the Miami Heat.
Groce also coached Evan Turner — a native of Chicago — for one season with the Buckeyes. Ohio State went on to win the National Invitational Tournament that year. Turner swept National Player of the Year awards two years later and was selected as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft by the Philadelphia 76ers.
Effective recruiting in Chicago will be a key focus for the coaching staff in the future, but Groce said the most important aspect was finding “Illinois guys” — players who fit into the culture he hopes to establish — wherever they may be.
Groce has had success with Chicago recruits before, including Turner and D.J. Cooper, who led the Bobcats in scoring this season.
“We have a lot of previously established relationships there, maybe more than what people think,” Groce said. “But I’m looking forward to getting to know (Chicago-area coaches) better than we do now.”
The Illini’s head coaching position opened when Thomas fired Bruce Weber on March 9 with three years and $3.9 million left on his contract. Weber went 210-101 in his nine seasons at Illinois, with an 89-65 mark in Big Ten play.
Illinois originally pursued Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart, but he declined what was believed to be an eight-year deal at more than $2.5 million annually. The 34-year-old elected to return to the Rams for his fourth season.
Thomas also reportedly sought out Butler’s Brad Stevens to fill the vacancy, but Stevens announced Sunday he would remain at Butler.
During his portion of the press conference, Thomas did not speak about either coach but said “the process played out according to plan, and I feel good about the end result.”
Various media reports expected Thomas to hire Groce on Tuesday. When there was a delay, skeptics believed the Board of Trustees may have been involved, but Thomas clarified Thursday it was not the case.
“To say there was a flaw or hiccup in the process because others thought a decision or a press conference was supposed to happen two days ago, that’s not true,” Thomas said.
Thomas said plans to renovate the Assembly Hall are underway and that he hopes to sell the project around summer.
He added that there are also plans to upgrade the Ubben Basketball Complex sometime in the future.
As for the current team, junior guard D.J. Richardson said he believes it will remain intact as is.
“I think everyone’s staying right now,” Richardson said. “Everyone seems pretty humble and having a good work ethic.”
Richardson added he hopes Howard will remain on the coaching staff.
“I love coach Howard; he’s been there since I’ve been a freshman in high school.”
Groce studied mathematics at Taylor University. He also spent time as an assistant coach at Taylor, North Carolina State, Butler and Xavier. He and his wife, Allison, have two sons, who are all eager for the transition.
“We really felt like this was a great community, not only to grow a basketball program but also a family,” Groce said.
Photo and story via The Daily Illini