Their little dugout tango Sunday afternoon proved that combustibility in baseball is almost always a byproduct of winning percentage. Every team has players who don't get along, every team lingering beefs that threaten to bubble to the surface. Not every team has its superstar berating its center fielder for chasing a gap shot with all the urgency of a slug, and it took teammates to ensure Upton didn't commit two wrongs.
Five weeks ago, the Rays were the picture of stability. The vibe inside the clubhouse struck the perfect balance of frat house and workplace. Hank Blalock(notes) and Gabe Kapler(notes) bantered about the hair product of their youth in San Diego. Carlos Pena(notes) talked about how the Rays functioned "like a perfect family." And Upton, so enigmatic, so wildly talented and so prone to disappoint, offered a prediction: "We're only going to get better, too."
The Rays had swept the New York Yankees in a two-game series at Yankee Stadium. They sported a 30-11 record and stood five games up in the American League East. They were the toast of baseball.
Now they are 44-31, three games back of the Yankees and one behind Boston. They're one game over .500 at home. They are most certainly not the '98 Yankees. They got no-hit Friday by Edwin Jackson(notes), the second time they've gone nine innings hitless this season. Since the sweep in New York, they are hitting .212 with runners in scoring position, .205 with two outs and can't crack a .400 slugging percentage in all situations. Though their ERA remains the best in the AL, the Rays are at 4.36 in June.
And so it is up to Joe Maddon, the Rays' excellent manager, to prevent the swoon from going any further, as a rough patch last year torpedoed their playoff chances. And it's up to Pena to hit better, and Jason Bartlett(notes) to return to form, and the Rays to treat their next 10 games – six against Boston, four against Minnesota – just as what they are: imperative and season saving. And most of all it's up to …
1. Evan Longoria, the heart of the Rays, who must forgive but not forget. This is Longoria's clubhouse, and it's why he did exactly what he should've: get in Upton's face for his pathetic attempt at chasing down Rusty Ryal's(notes) double-turned-triple. This was not a situation that merited handling behind closed doors. If Upton wants to play the game like a bush leaguer, Longoria was well within his rights to treat him that way.
Longoria is 24 years old, and his baby face belies an attitude that sets the tone for the Rays. "He can be a mean [expletive]," one friend said earlier this year, and Longoria took the tack that …
2. No Florida Marlins player did when Hanley Ramirez(notes) pulled a B.J. Upton earlier this season. Or did Upton pull a Hanley? Each sports a résumé chock full of dogging plays and getting benched for it, and while Ramirez gets away with it because of his production, Upton is now halfway through another season pocked with underachievement.
He teased everyone with a transcendent 2008 postseason in which he hit for power, ran with purpose and tracked down balls with aplomb. Stardom beckoned. Until he stunk in 2009 and followed it up with a durian this year.
Now, Upton is tagged. He's lazy. He doesn't fulfill his potential. It's an ugly branding for anyone, because in baseball, players' reputations chase them. Much of it is self-fulfilling, as everyone from teammates to coaches to fans focus on Upton's hustle, because it has been a problem. And slipping up once is all it takes …
3. Something the king of slip-ups, Milton Bradley(notes), knows all too well. Bradley, remember, left the Seattle Mariners mid-game two months ago, then took time away from the team to get treatment for mental issues that have dogged him for years. His willingness to seek help was laudable; his decade-long trip around baseball begged the question why it hadn't happened before.
Bradley returned in late May and has been a disaster. His average is a tick above the Mendoza Line. He's getting on base 29 percent of the time. Among the 96 players with at least 200 plate appearances in the AL, Bradley's .650 OPS is 86th. The Mariners' reliance on him to lead their offense now seems laughable. If anything, Bradley is even worse than he was …
4. In Chicago, where for a year he at least kept Carlos Zambrano(notes) from being the most volatile person in the Cubs' clubhouse. Now that Bradley is gone, Z has reassumed the mantel with gusto, getting in the face of Derrek Lee(notes) – among the most mild-mannered Cubs – and getting himself suspended by the team for doing so.
Zambrano was baseball's Eyjafjallajökull, an eruption primed to happen. The formula fit: losing team (the Cubs are nine games under .500), underperforming lot (from Aramis to Zambrano) and nuclear player. The fashion in which it did wasn't atypical, either, as Zambrano is never against teammate-on-teammate violence. And for him to then …
5. Go out to dinner with the manager of the team he faced that day, the Chicago White Sox's Ozzie Guillen, showed a remarkable amount of:
e. Another hundred derisive words by which Zambrano's mug shot could well appear
Ozzie wasn't guilty, of course. He was riding his White Sox to an 11-game winning streak. While the Cubs managed to snap it Sunday, it doesn't lessen the impressiveness. Two weeks ago, Guillen was managing a blowup of his own, between himself and his boss, White Sox GM Kenny Williams, all over lingering resentment from a website he wasn't allowed to launch and his youngest son not getting drafted early enough by the team and all of the other things that turned him into …
6. Every bit the caricature of the Pittsburgh Pierogi. In an attempt to best portray the Pittsburgh Pirates' futility, the Pierogi fit better than anyone: manager John Russell or rookie Pedro Alvarez(notes) (4-for-35 with 17 strikeouts) or pretty much anyone else who has contributed to the Pirates' remarkable minus-181 run differential. The man who plays the Pierogi at PNC Park got canned for a Facebook message criticizing the team for giving contract extensions to Russell and GM Neal Huntington.
Backlash forced the team to hire him back. It's about the only good thing the Pirates did this month. In June, they are 4-19. At 25-50, they're two games behind Baltimore for worst record – and at least the Orioles play in the AL East. Sometime this week, the Pirates should put a lock on scoring the fewest runs in baseball and allowing the most. Consecutive losing season No. 18 is death-and-taxes sure, and while this may not be 1952 bad, when the Pirates went 42-112, it's brutal. The last winning manager in Pittsburgh …
7. Was Jim Leyland, and he hasn't been around for 14 years. He loses it in a Detroit Tigers uniform and took classic Leyland form Sunday to avenge a missed call from the night before.
If a team in any sport deserves instant replay's expansion, it's the Tigers. First Brandon Inge's(notes) hit-by-pitch-that-wasn't last year. Then the Armando Galarraga(notes) perfect-game disaster. And now Gary Cederstrom on Saturday calling a game-ending third strike on Johnny Damon(notes) from a Peter Moylan(notes) pitch that was somewhere in the vicinity of a foot outside.
Leyland couldn't take it Sunday and got himself tossed in the fourth inning arguing a non-Cederstrom call. He then snuck a few words into Cederstrom, who, the night before, had admitted to Leyland that he "kicked it," a favorite phrase of umpires because it sounds so much better than "totally, unequivocally blew the call." It didn't make Leyland feel any better …
8. Just as a couple extra days of rest isn't going to be a magical healing salve for the right arm of Edwin Jackson. Jackson threw 149 pitches in his no-hitter Friday.
It was a no-hitter in the same way that Crocs are shoes: legitimate, kind of, but a cheap, poor knock-off of the real thing. Not all no-hitters are aesthetic, but by chasing what he and those in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization wanted to deem history, the organization misplaced its priorities and chose temporary glory over long-term viability.
Sorry, but this ain't a no-no for the memory books, unless the book is for the ugliest no-hitter. It fits much better in arm abuse, and to allow Jackson to dictate the decision to keep him in didn't reflect the "organizational advocacy" GM Josh Byrnes wanted to instill when he made A.J. Hinch manager. Arms aren't meant to throw that many pitches, especially ones that have been trained to hit 120 max …
9. Which puts Jackson on a path to land in the same injury purgatory as the entire Boston Red Sox roster. Victor Martinez(notes) hobbled off Sunday, Clay Buchholz(notes) the day before and, most important, Dustin Pedroia(notes) on Friday. It came a day after his tour-de-force 5-for-5, three-home run, two-big-cojones performance to salvage a game in Colorado.
Pedroia is gone for six weeks, fouling a ball centimeters from the pad on his instep meant to protect that very injury from happening. Boston may fill the hole with a trade. It may shift players around and hope they stick. The Red Sox may just pray, because nothing can replace an .871 OPS, one-to-one strikeout-to-walk defensive machine. If Buchholz misses time, too, and Martinez's fractured thumb sends him to the DL, it's at least a good start …
10. For the Rays and Evan Longoria to get the nonsense out of their system and return to playing the sort of baseball that personified their first 41 games. The Rays pitched. They hit. They ran. They caught the ball. They got along.
As much as Longoria wants to be the Rays' glue – as much as he tries – he can affect only so much change. The onus falls on Upton, who, the inning after the incident with Longoria, was due up. Upton coaxed a walk from Rodrigo Lopez(notes), trotted to first, took a strong lead and was promptly picked off.
Upton jogged back into the dugout and took off his batting helmet. Nobody said a word. They didn't need to.