Rays ready to welcome spark plug

Rays ready to welcome spark plug

BALTIMORE -- Fun times are ahead at Tropicana Field on Monday night when the 2008 season will be celebrated during the pregame festivities for the home opener.

But to the true Rays fan, the final package to be opened on a magical day will be the unveiling of B.J. Upton in center field.

Dr. James Andrews performed surgery on Upton's left shoulder on Nov. 11 in Birmingham, Ala. Tampa Bay has had Upton on a conservative rehab program, which included missing the first road trip due to the possible adverse effects of the cold weather. Saturday night, Upton went 3-for-4 with a walk and a stolen base for the Charlotte Stone Crabs of the Class A Florida State League. During his stint with the Stone Crabs, Upton went 4-for-9 with four stolen bases, two RBIs, four walks and a .643 on-base percentage.

"He's feeling great right now and we're excited to get him back," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "[Having him back is] going to be great. He's been a big part of our success here."

In Upton's absence, Tampa Bay has used Gabe Kapler, Ben Zobrist and Matt Joyce in center field.

"Obviously, the other guys have done a nice job," Maddon said. "But B.J. is exceptional with the amount of ground he can cover. He plays that real shallow center field that takes away the bloops and the line drives, and he can still go [get the balls hit] over his head. And his offensive side, the power and the speed and the baserunning, all of that kind of good stuff, he brings a lot to our club."

Upton hit .273 with nine home runs and 67 RBIs in 2008, which looked like a considerable dive from the lofty plateau he reached in '07 when he hit .300 with 24 home runs and 82 RBIs. But there was a reasonable explanation for the drop in production due to his shoulder. Playing through the pain, Upton hit seven home runs during the postseason to tie an American League record for a single postseason, matching Troy Glaus, who turned the trick in '02. And he fell one short of the overall mark held by Barry Bonds ('02) and Carlos Beltran ('04).

Scott Kazmir, who is Upton's friend in addition to being Monday night's starting pitcher, is excited to have Upton back in the lineup.

"Not taking anything away from Joyce, he's played great," Kazmir said. "But I know, me being on the mound and looking back and seeing B.J. in center field, it is going to feel like we've got our full squad back.

"We need him back. It's been said before that in April, with the division we're in, you could be out of it as soon as the first month is over. So we've got to get to full strength and get it going."

Pitching matchup
TB: LHP Scott Kazmir (1-0, 1.50 ERA)
The left-hander enjoyed a nice spring that saw him find his slider and lock in his mechanics. He built on those results in his first start of the season Wednesday night at Fenway Park when he threw 111 pitches in six innings against the Red Sox, allowing just one run on five hits and a walk with three strikeouts to pick up his first win of the season. Kazmir is 21-14 with a 3.11 ERA in 60 career starts at Tropicana Field. He is 4-4 with a 2.51 ERA in 12 career appearances against the Yankees; last season, he went 2-1 with a 1.06 ERA in three starts against New York.

NYY: RHP Chien-Ming Wang (0-1, 17.18 ERA)
Making his first start since a season-ending injury last June, Wang was rapped for seven runs and nine hits in 3 2/3 innings by the Orioles in his 2009 debut. He struggled with command of his sinker, leaving after a Nick Markakis home run. Wang said that his body was moving ahead of his right arm, which has been lagging behind on pitches -- an issue he also battled during the spring. Though it has carried into the regular season, Wang remains confident it will be addressed. He is 7-4 with a 3.35 ERA in 13 career starts against Tampa Bay, including a 1-0 record with a 0.69 ERA in two starts last season.

Dioner Navarro started at catcher Sunday, even though he normally takes a day off when it's a day game following a night game. Maddon had planned to start Shawn Riggans, but he wanted to get an extra left-handed bat into the lineup against Orioles right-hander Adam Eaton; Riggans hits left-handed and Navarro is a switch-hitter. ... Evan Longoria has now hit safely in all six games this season. ... Jason Isringhausen threw an inning in an extended spring game Saturday, allowing one hit and striking out one while using just nine pitches.

 Buy tickets now to catch the game in person.

On the Internet
 Gameday Audio
•  Gameday
•  Official game notes

On television
• Sun Sports

On radio
• WDAE 620

Up next
• Tuesday: Rays (Matt Garza, 1-0, 1.29) vs. Yankees (A.J. Burnett, 1-0, 3.38), 7:08 p.m. ET
• Wednesday: Rays (Andy Sonnanstine, 0-1, 9.64) vs. Yankees (Andy Pettitte, 1-0, 1.29), 4:08 p.m. ET
• Thursday: Rays (Jeff Niemann, 0-1, 10.13) vs. White Sox (Bartolo Colon, 1-0, 0.00), 7:08 p.m. ET

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.