ST. PETERSBURG -- One of the main reasons for the Rays' success during their September surge lies with their 2-3 punch in the lineup.
Center fielder B.J. Upton and third baseman Evan Longoria have combined to go 7-for-17 (.412) with a homer, five runs, three doubles, two walks and three RBIs in the first two games of the postseason.
Longoria, who missed time with a pesky oblique injury earlier in the season, finished with a career-low .244 batting average. However, the third baseman led the Majors with 86 RBIs from June 11 to season's end. He hit 20 homers following the All-Star break, which was one fewer than Jacoby Ellsbury and Dan Uggla for the big league lead.
Since batting second in the lineup every game starting on Sept. 5 (24 games), Upton is hitting .386 with five homers, 14 RBIs, 10 doubles and 11 walks. In every other month of the season, the 27-year-old hit .239 or lower.
"I try to set the table and let the guys behind me try to drive me in and get in scoring position for those guys," Upton said. "I think if I can put pressure on them on the bases, maybe they'll get better pitches."
Rays manager Joe Maddon said that Upton has been working on his mechanics, particularly getting his foot down sooner.
In his career, Upton is Tampa Bay's all-time postseason leader in hits (27), RBIs (18) and runs (19). Longoria has one more postseason homer than his teammate after his three-run shot on Saturday.
"I just think that B.J. loves this part of the season," Maddon said. "He showed it to us a couple of years ago. He is never afraid of the moment, I tell you that, I promise. So right now I just think that he feels good. I think his mechanics are in better shape than they had been and it's just he's that kind of guy that really digs this kind of moment."
Howell's numbers not telling whole story
ST. PETERSBURG -- J.P. Howell returned to the Rays this season on May 20 after missing all of the 2010 season following left shoulder surgery.
The 28-year-old left-hander made 46 appearances this season with mixed results, finishing 2-3 with a 6.16 ERA. Howell's record in itself might prompt some to question why Rays manager Joe Maddon opted to put him on the 25-man roster for the postseason. When asked what he thinks he can get out of Howell during the playoffs, Maddon answered: "He's kind of a situational Randy Choate kind of guy right now."
As for what Howell's main problem has been, Maddon didn't hesitate in responding.
"Feel, just feel," Maddon said. "The fastball off the front hip of the righty coming over the plate. The changeup has been up a little bit this year, too. His changeup is normally a really good pitch. It's been up. His curveball still seems to be pretty good. Pretty consistent. Fastball he's actually throwing harder than he used to. Which I think is a good thing. But I don't know if he has the feel for that fastball coming back off the hip of the right-handed hitter. I don't see that.
While Howell clearly is not back to his 2008-09 form, he's enjoyed some success this season, which isn't reflected in the overall numbers. He put together a stretch of 24 appearances from July 2-Sept. 7 in which he held opponents to a .148 average. He did have a couple of hiccups in September, but he's amped for the playoffs.
"I feel great," Howell said. "Now it's just a matter of piecing it together to be perfect, more perfect. There are things the home run, I gave up a [Matt] Wieters home run, and then a [Robinson] Cano double, that can't happen. It can be singles and you can live with that. But doubles and extra-base hits, and stuff like that, it's tough to swallow.
"[This season has] come down to inches. It's actually been a good season for me. The numbers don't look too good, but I had a really good run late. And that's what I was looking for."
Sold out Game 3 headlines big day in region
ST. PETERSBURG -- Tropicana Field is sold out for Game 3 of the American League Division Series. In addition, the Tampa Bay Bucs will be playing a Monday night game in Tampa that also is sold out. Rays manager Joe Maddon was asked to comment how big Monday will be for the Tampa Bay area.
"It's a huge Tampa Bay area day," Maddon said. "For us personally, we love playing in front of big crowds. The people in Texas, that was fantastic. The crowd they had there, the enthusiasm, the white towel. I don't understand how anybody shoots free throws. You see that stuff. How does that ever happen that you have the concentration ability to make a free throw with that stuff right behind the basket?
"For us, we are very excited about it, and I am sure for the Bucs, too. I ... We like this. We like when the place is packed. It's ... it should be a home-court advantage, because it is loud in there. It is to the point where [bench coach] Davey [Martinez] and I have to scream to one another and we are standing next to each other at the same time. But it's great. It's fun. And I really believe the people in our area are enjoying it and shall continue to enjoy it."
The players are looking forward to the packed house, too.
"It's going to make a big difference," B.J. Upton said. "The more we can get the crowd into it, I think it's going to help us out a lot. It's going to be interesting to see, and I definitely think it's going to help us out."
Rays swinging hot bats at the perfect time
ST. PETERSBURG -- Evan Longoria, who connected on a three-run homer in Saturday night's 8-6 loss, said the Rays knew coming into the series that they had to try and keep pace with the Rangers' offense.
During the regular season, Texas scored 855 runs, which ranked third in the Majors. That averaged to around 5.3 runs per game. Tampa Bay, meanwhile, ranked in the middle of the pack with 707 runs.
Over the past three games, the Rays' offense has scored 23 runs. The last time Tampa Bay produced that many runs in a three-game span came in Toronto on Aug. 26-28, when the bats produced 24 runs.
"It's good, and I think it was understood coming into a series against a club like Texas that is an offensive ballclub that we knew that we were going to have to score runs," Longoria said. "Our pitching staff is good, but the reality of it is those guys score runs over there."
According to Longoria, catcher Kelly Shoppach's impact through the first two games of the series has been a key to the team's offensive outburst. In Game 1, Shoppach belted a pair of homers. On Saturday, he drove in another run.
"I was talking to somebody yesterday about riding the momentum and trying to keep that hot hand in the lineup," Longoria said. "He's been the hottest hitter in our lineup through the first two games of the playoffs and leading into it.
"It's not easy to give away at-bats. If it's mid-July and you're playing in Miami when it's 110 degrees outside, you're more apt to give away an at-bat than when you're playing in front of 50,000 in the postseason. All of us are Major League players, and when you have that intensity and focus as long as you're not nervous, a lot of guys' true colors shine through."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. Christina De Nicola is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.