Henning: Odds finally turn in Upton’s favor

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Detroit — After he had walked to his clubhouse locker late Tuesday night, taken a shower that must have felt particularly good, and thrown on some gray slacks that paired nicely with a gleaming white knit shirt, Justin Upton might or might not have been able to recite at least some of his career statistics.

Here are a few of those numbers. They come in handy when understanding why the Tigers signed him to a $132-million contract and why the first five weeks of his 2016 big-league season hadn’t made a lot of sense.

Upton: 5,096 games, 1,210 hits, 244 doubles, 192 home runs, 517 walks, and yes, 1,247 strikeouts, 62 of which had piled up in his first 38 games of 2016.

It didn’t jibe, this run of whiffs. It elicited no answers. The Tigers front office, the manager, the coaching staff, Upton’s teammates — no one could deduce why he was swinging over and under and anywhere the baseball wasn’t.

All the Tigers knew was that Upton’s issues were not physical. Important, all-important, that knowledge. It meant a 28-year-old outfielder with superb skills and athleticism most likely was in a psychological funk particular to slumping hitters and not dealing with an angry knee, shoulder, oblique, wrist, etc.

That it had nothing to do with health was not a consoling thought to either Upton or to his employers as strikeouts rolled like a car odometer. But it most certainly was going to be temporary misery, and Tuesday night, as the Tigers exploded late to pop the Minnesota Twins, 7-2, at Comerica Park, Upton seemed, as much as hitting can be analyzed, to have escaped a dispiriting dungeon.

Making a break

He tattooed a pair of pitches in four at-bats that featured — real triumph here — no strikeouts. In the fifth inning he blistered a pitch from Phil Hughes on a laser-like line to the right-field side of center. Twins center fielder Danny Santana raised his arms with his back to the field and on a dead sprint made a deluxe grab.

It can be like this during the hitter’s hell that is an extended slump. Even pitches you torch are caught.

But he got a break crafted entirely by himself in the seventh. Upton hit another high-caliber drive that was smote so hard it caromed off the left-center field fence, like a pinball, and landed beyond the wall for a ground-rule double.

In his other two at-bats, Upton popped to first and grounded out to short. Nothing gratifying there. Except, of course, he had made contact.

You don’t get greedy in the big leagues. Not as a hitter. You accept progress, take inspiration from it, and hope like the dickens your demons don’t return a day later, which of course was within the realm of possibilities as Upton and the Tigers got ready for Wednesday afternoon’s series wrap-up against the Twins.

But he appeared different Tuesday. More in control. More on a path to driving a baseball like a bullet leaves a rifle barrel, all because of Upton’s strength and bat speed.

“He’s looked a lot better the last week,” said Gene Lamont, the Tigers bench coach who on Tuesday spelled Brad Ausmus as manager when Ausmus got socked with a one-game suspension.

“I think with that big contract he put a lot of pressure on himself. He’s a proud guy.”

Bright future

Proud, but not haughty. Proud, but not smug or elitist. There’s a difference, of course. And it’s been on display since he signed with the Tigers last January. Consistently courteous. Conversational. Accommodating. As they say, a nice kid.

He might have had his moments of late as questions necessarily were asked and answers were non-existent. But he was up-front late Tuesday night when asked how he had dealt with at-bats so agonizing.

“Honestly, for a while there, it was getting rough,” Upton said, speaking in a voice that leans toward the soft side. “You see the guys around you contributing and then you’re not doing well. It’s a grind.”

There is no guarantee he will blast the ball Wednesday, or in the weekend series against Tampa Bay, or next week against the Phillies. Baseball can be cruel.

But if percentages mean anything, and they do, bet on the track record. Bet on skill. Bet on the likelihood a crazy interlude was going to be looked at, eventually, as just that. A weird time.

Consider those career numbers. They reflect talents that should, if anything, move a tick upward for a player, only 28, who this week just might have escaped his chains.