ST. PETERSBURG -- Center fielder B.J. Upton is already on his way to another scorching September at the plate. For evidence, look no farther than Sunday's three-homer performance.
Upton powered the Rays past the Rangers, 6-0, with three solo shots, tying the club record and becoming the 10th player this season to hit at least three in one game. He now leads Tampa Bay in home runs (21), RBIs (66) and stolen bases (29), and he has a chance to become the first Rays player to lead the team in all three categories.
"I can't really put it into words," Upton said after the game, the remnants of a celebratory shaving-cream pie delivered by Matt Joyce on his face. "You kind of dream about doing things like that, and it doesn't happen very often. For me to come out and do it today to help this team against a good Texas ballclub, a team that pitches well, too, it feels really good."
Upton has hit five homers in his last six games, six in his last 10 and 12 in his last 35, and he has joined Mike Trout, Alex Rios and Ryan Braun as the only 20-20 players this season. Upton, Curtis Granderson and Ian Kinsler are the only three American Leaguers to put together three 20-20 seasons since 2007.
Much of Upton's production has come late this season, a common pattern throughout his career. He's hitting .407 this month, put together a 1.038 OPS during Tampa Bay's big September comeback a year ago and was one of the Rays' top hitters during their late run to the World Series in 2008.
"It just seems like every year, something clicks in the second half. I don't know what it is," he said. "I think it's just coincidence that it always happens to be September."
"If he's able to maintain that kind of direction, there's no telling what he's going to do the last couple weeks of the season," said manager Joe Maddon, adding that Upton can carry a light-hitting Rays offense to the playoffs "because he's capable and because he enjoys it. He enjoys this time of the year. I really expect that he's going to play well the rest of the season."
Upton wasted no time getting his first homer on Sunday, crushing a blast to right field off the first pitch thrown by Rangers starter Roy Oswalt. He went down swinging on three pitches in his second at-bat but rediscovered his home-run swing against left-handed reliever Martin Perez.
Perez fell behind, 3-0, to Upton in the fourth, then Upton got hold of a 92-mph fastball and launched it deep into the left-field stands for his second solo shot. It gave Upton the fourth multihomer game of his career and second this season, and he wasn't done.
Upton stepped to the plate with one out in the sixth, once again facing Perez, and once again swung on the first pitch. This time, however, he crushed a first-pitch curveball into the left-field stands, tying the Rays record for homers in a game held by Evan Longoria (Sept. 18, 2008) and Jonny Gomes (July 30, 2005).
"Player of the game, as far as I'm concerned," said James Shields, a deserving candidate in his own right after pitching a two-hit shutout. "He's locked in right now. I told everyone at the beginning of the year, he was my pick to click this year, and he's really showing it down the stretch here."
Upton's third and final blast brought the cheering crowd to its feet, roaring for a curtain call. Reid Brignac pushed Upton out of the dugout, and the player often criticized by fans for not hustling or caring enough soaked in the moment with a wave of his helmet.
"Guys like him that are really good have this effortless way of doing things sometimes that is misinterpreted," Maddon said. "That's perception. That's how people were raised, or that's what their daddy told them, and it's not always true. B.J. has always cared. Always cared."
Upton went to the plate for the final time in the eighth inning. He wasn't thinking about his chances at a four-homer game, although some of his teammates had mentioned it to him. He swung at the first pitch again, but grounded out down the third-base line.
On the play, his bat, the one that launched each of the three homers, cracked and broke. It was just about the only thing he had to be upset about.
"That I wasn't too happy about," Upton said. "The bat itself had a great day, so it died a soldier."