Upton unsure if he'll ever shed 'slacker' tag

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – B.J. Upton(notes) froze for a moment.

The Tampa Bay Rays trailed by a run in the sixth inning, Upton was running from second base, and he hesitated. He waited to see if Jason Bartlett's(notes) line drive to center would fall and to see if third base coach Tom Foley would wave him home.

Foley gave him the go-ahead and Upton raced around third with his all-world speed, but the hesitation hurt him, and he was tagged out at the plate after a strong throw from Boston Red Sox center fielder Darnell McDonald(notes).

If it's Evan Longoria(notes) getting thrown out there, if it's Carlos Pena or Carl Crawford(notes), fans would shrug and call it an unlucky break. But it was Upton, and instead the episode Friday night was added to the long list of his "lazy" plays.

Most prominent might be a game against the Diamondbacks in June, when the Rays center fielder’s slow approach to a deep fly ball allowed a triple and incited a dugout clash with Longoria, who felt Upton didn't hustle. The play was a reminder of a horrific two weeks in August, 2008. Upton was benched for not running hard on an eighth-inning hit, was pulled from a game after he hesitated on a double-play grounder and in another contest was thrown out at second after jogging on what he assumed was a home run.

After that torpor trifecta, he was given the same tag in the majors that had been applied to him ever since little league – "slacker."

Does he deserve it?

"Slacker, lazy … I've heard it all," Upton said. "That's just always been my (label). I don't know … I guess I don't make things look as hard as everybody else does. It's been that way since I was a kid. I know it's not something that I can avoid."

Upton is the kind of superior athlete who routinely makes difficult plays appear easy. So when he misses easy plays, it's tough to discern why. The expectations for him were so high that his margin for error became minimal. He was called up to the big leagues in 2004 three weeks before his 20th birthday, and his on-the-job training is partially to blame for his poor reputation.

Instead of being chastised in the obscurity of a minor league clubhouse, his problems have been handled in major league dugouts.

"For a lot of people, he hasn't met expectations, so it's easy for them to get on him," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "And there have been some gaffes that make it easy for people to pile on. I'll tell you one thing, though, he handles it pretty well."

He doesn't handle it so much as he ignores it. He's tuned it out, like we all do with the hushed hum of an air conditioner on a hot summer day. He's been wearing the criticism so long that he sometimes forgets it's there.

His negative perception has become less important to him than living up to the expectations of his teammates.

"I don't think it's gonna ever go away, to be honest with you," Upton said. "I think things are magnified with me. I've just got to continue to help this ball club win. To me, that's the only thing that matters."

To his teammates, Upton is recognized as a hard worker. His hustle is rarely questioned anymore.

"Everybody has the ability to change, and everybody has the ability to make a better name for himself," Longoria said. "He has done a great job. It's just a matter of time before he kicks that tag with the public like he has on our team.

"In my eyes, he's a changed man. The biggest thing is if you've earned the respect of your teammates, and if they believe in you. And we do."

They also believe in him because his bat is heating up. In August, he's hitting .269 with five home runs. It's a far cry from his 24-home run, .300-batting average performance in 2007, but it's a step up from his season average of .235. And the five home runs are an improvement on the one he hit in July.

He credits his small surge to simplification. Instead of focusing so intently on the mechanics of his swing, he’s allowing his athleticism and instincts to take control. The refined focus of chasing a pennant – the Rays are locked in a tight race with the New York Yankees in the AL East – has helped him too, just as the pressure of the playoff atmosphere helped him during his remarkable run in the 2008 postseason, when he belted seven home runs in 16 games.

"I want to do well and help this team in any way I can," Upton said. "I'm expected to produce. I know that. And obviously, over the first half of the season, I didn't do that. Whatever those numbers are, I don't think they apply to me now. I know what kind of hitter I am. All of that other stuff is behind me."

Looking forward to the final stretch of the season, the offensively sporadic Rays need Upton to be better than ever. He continues to run down balls most center fielders can’t get to. On Saturday night, he caught a deep drive to left-center by Daniel Nava(notes), his long legs erasing the distance between him and the ball, the play appearing effortless.

Then he started the eighth inning with a homer to left field, tying the score 2-2 and shelving Clay Buchholz(notes) for the night. The Rays won in the 10th and continue to keep the Red Sox a comfortable distance back in third place.

That's the kind of production the Rays need from Upton. No hesitation, just a lot of hustle and hitting.