DETROIT — Justin Upton isn’t averse to outward displays of emotion. Fans have seen him chuck his bat, exchange choice words with plate umpires and rip off his batting glove in disgust. Anyone watching Sunday’s game would’ve also likely seen — and heard — when he let out a loud expletive following his seventh-inning strikeout as he strode back to the dugout.
But amid all these short, controlled outbursts, Upton has maintained a certain level of steadiness, a sort of professional equanimity, that has allowed him to navigate the turbulent peaks and valleys of his first season in Detroit after inking a six-year deal worth $132.75 million this winter. And now, he’s showing signs of why the Detroit Tigers chose to make such a splash in signing him. With a .273 batting average in September and nine home runs since Aug. 21, he appears to be heating up when the club needs clutch offensive production the very most.
“He’s had his struggles after signing a big contract — that was much deserved — but he never let it get to him or distract him from working hard,” teammate Ian Kinsler told ESPN.com. “And that’s refreshing.”
More so for Kinsler than most, considering he spends the most time with the 29-year-old outfielder in the clubhouse. Their lockers are right next to one another, so if anyone would have felt a vacuum of energy or negative pall from Upton, it would have been the veteran second baseman seated to his left. Instead, he saw Upton power through some of the difficult stretches this season with a blue-collar, meat-and-potatoes mentality.
That axiom could have been greatly tested last month when Upton was benched for a three-game stretch by manager Brad Ausmus to mentally regroup and recalibrate after a prolonged stretch of scuffling at the plate.
Upton could have thrown a fit or sulked when Ausmus delivered the news. But he didn’t. It helped that he has a good relationship with the 47-year-old manager, a former MLB catcher with 18 years of experience. But it also was because he knew Ausmus was right to sit him down.
He had gone eight straight games without a hit. His mechanics were off. His strikeouts were soaring. Something had to be done.
“It got to the point where I knew I wasn’t being productive, so I knew I didn’t have a leg to stand on,” Upton said. “So even if I wanted to fight him on this, I had to look at myself and think, ‘Is it time for you to get right and prepare to help this team?'”
Last Wednesday, in the 11th inning of a tie game, the Braves put Harper on to load the bases. The next hitter, Wilson Ramos, hit a walk-off single. On Monday, Rendon followed Harper’s IBB with a three-run jack. That’s a far cry from what happened back during the Cubs series in May, when Washington went 2-for-13 following a Harper walk, including 0-for-4 after an intentional walk. Of course, a big part of that was the fact that Nats cleanup hitter Ryan Zimmerman, who has been a shell of his offensive self this season, was the guy batting behind Harper each and every time. Since then, Baker has come to his senses and shaken up the order.