Rays take 2-1 lead in ALCS | NevadaAppeal.com
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Rays take 2-1 lead in ALCS

Los Angeles Times

BOSTON — Matt Garza was certainly dominant Monday, his six-inning, one-run, six-hit effort “the main reason why we won that game,” Tampa Bay Manager Joe Maddon said after a 9-1 American League Championship Series victory over the Boston Red Sox.

But the most indelible images from the Rays’ Game 3 mauling in Fenway Park, which gave them a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, were three-run bombs from a pair of players who overcame their share of adversity this season, some self-inflicted, some beyond their control.

B.J. Upton, who was benched twice in the same week in August for not hustling out ground balls, crushed a three-run home run off previously impenetrable left-hander Jon Lester to highlight a four-run third inning, giving the center fielder five playoff home runs after hitting only nine in the regular season.

And right fielder Rocco Baldelli, the Woonsocket, R.I., native whose career was sidetracked by four years of major injuries, and who was diagnosed in 2007 with a rare and debilitating muscle disorder, added a three-run shot in the eighth that sent the Fenway not-so-faithful scurrying for the exits.

“He’s another example of what this team is all about,” Tampa Bay reliever J.P. Howell said of Baldelli. “You look at him, and you can’t take anything for granted. He didn’t, and we don’t.”

Baldelli, 27, missed all of 2005 and about half of 2006 because of torn ligaments in his knee and elbow, and he played only 35 games last season because of a hamstring injury.

He was limited to 28 games this season, which was spent recovering from a mitochondrial disorder, which slows muscle recovery and caused so much fatigue that Baldelli “had trouble even hitting in batting practice and going out there to jog and play catch.”

All of which has made Baldelli’s return all the more compelling.

“To be able to do this in front of all of my friends and family here was real special,” said Baldelli, a first-round pick of Tampa Bay in 2000. “You know, everything I’ve done this year is pretty special, coming from the condition I was in during spring training. … It’s like getting an unexpected gift.”

Upton’s physical gifts seem endless — the 24-year-old is blessed with a strong and lean, 6-foot-3, 185-pound frame, great speed, a great arm and good power, “and he’s got a chance to get better, which is kind of scary,” Boston Manager Terry Francona said.

But his tendency to slip into pro-glide mode has drawn criticism and it got him into trouble with his manager in August.

“Basically, you have to do the parental thing on occasion,” Maddon said. “B.J. is a wonderful young man. He’s very high end in a positive way. That was just a point that needed to be driven home at the moment for him and for the whole organization.”

Upton, to his credit, “never made an excuse, never cried about it,” Maddon said, and Monday, it was Upton who drove a few points — three of them, actually — home.

With a 1-0 lead and Jason Bartlett (single) and Akinori Iwamura (double) aboard in the third, Upton drove a three-run home run far over the Green Monster in left field for a 4-0 lead. Evan Longoria capped the rally with a solo shot that made it 5-0.

“Perfect swings,” the soft-spoken Upton said, when asked to explain his playoff power surge. “That’s what’s going on right now.”

It must be contagious. Baldelli’s eighth-inning shot followed singles by Carl Crawford and Willy Aybar, and Carlos Pena added a solo blast off Paul Byrd in the ninth, giving the Rays 13 hits.

“You’ve got to take advantage of his mistakes — if you don’t, he’ll bury you,” Upton said of Lester, who hadn’t allowed an earned run in his first 16 playoff innings this October.

“His cutter is really good, a put-away pitch. He keeps it down and in, and a lot of people swing at it. We didn’t bite at it today.”

After losing Game 1, the Rays have now won two straight, giving them considerable momentum heading into Game 4 tonight.

“To beat them in Fenway is huge,” Upton said. “Hopefully it will create a snowball effect from here.”