Henning: Salvaging Upton one of Tigers’ biggest victories

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Atlanta — Two buses loaded with Tigers players and staff arrived Friday at Turner Field for what might — or might not — be a final weekend of Detroit baseball in 2016.

Cracking the playoffs was still something of a long-shot for manager Brad Ausmus’ team. The Tigers needed to win at least two of three games against the Braves. And bad things would need to happen either to the Blue Jays or Orioles in their weekend sets against the Red Sox and Yankees.

But the Tigers could, for a moment, cheer a victory already locked up.

Justin Upton got back on track.

How he did it is a story of triumph from Detroit’s 2016 baseball season. The turnaround included psychology, coaches’ eyes, compassion, appreciation for Upton’s personal ethic, and, ultimately, trust on the part of a team and a player.

Begin with realities that spurred Ausmus to decide after an Aug. 16 game against the Royals at Comerica Park that Upton would get a three-day vacation.

The Tigers left-fielder had just gone 0-for-3 in a 6-1 loss. It left Upton with an ugly 1-for-30 string spanning his last seven games. He had struck out eight times and for the year was batting .226.

Ausmus decided Upton would rest. Not for one game, which would be nothing more than a day off. He would get three days to do whatever he wanted. He could work in the batting cages with his coaches if he preferred. Or, if he needed to get away from hitting and swing mechanics and not touch a bat for 72 hours, that would be fine, also.

It was Upton’s call.

Ausmus’ strategy could be traced to his minor-league life with the Yankees.

Ausmus had a teammate, J.T. Snow, who for weeks was hitting the ball hard, everywhere, and always at someone’s glove. Snow’s mind was fried. His manager, Brian Butterfield, now a third-base coach with the Red Sox, decided Snow needed a three-day pass. A full three days. No games. No frustrations. Snow came back refreshed and clear-minded and a couple of summers later was in the big leagues for a long stretch.

Upton for several reasons bought into Ausmus’ plan that had been tailored to an outfielder’s specific needs.

Stressing out

One part was obvious to everyone, including Upton. He had been pressing to a point of implosion and needed a mental break. He had been feeling the torment all slumping hitters endure when they stress primarily because they feel they are letting down teammates.

They worry also about making a tainted first impression on a new baseball town and its fans. They become self-conscious about a big, expensive contract, which Upton signed in January (six years, $132 million) with the Tigers and owner Mike Ilitch because everyone beginning with Ilitch was nervous that left field might be under-staffed in 2016.

All of this was chewing Upton to pieces. What made the Tigers ache was seeing how honorably he was handling a gruesome, unprecedented stretch in his baseball career. He had played for nine seasons in the big leagues. Never had there been anything like this, and yet Upton didn’t pout, sulk, or snap. He showed, as they say, amazing grace. And the Tigers wanted to do whatever could be done to offer him, fundamentally, a sense of peace.

Baseball fortunes would turn around, in time. Everyone knew it. Upton hadn’t yet turned 29 when the three-day break was proposed. He had blur-like bat speed and a great eye and all the requisite talents. It was simply going to take time, maybe until 2017, for his old, elusive timing to return. And at that time months of torment would end.

The Tigers simply weren’t sure when he might escape from what, increasingly, had become a psychological jail cell.

The getaway, as it turned out, was pure, healing therapy.

Take a deep breath ...

Upton worked with hitting coaches Wally Joyner and David Newhan but minus a sense of urgency. He had time to think and to relax. To assess and to experiment, even if that experimentation was, in fact, a simple, inexorable return to basic hitting skills and mechanics.

No one, including Upton, can point to a single adjustment that led to a nearly instant turnaround. Upton since has been hitting intergalactic home runs almost at an every-other-game clip. He had another Friday night, this one a screaming liner deep into the left-field bleachers, his 30th homer of the year, a number that six weeks ago would have seemed hallucinatory. He had a walk and two more singles.

Upton has rediscovered an old and skilled habit, drawing occasional walks (his on-base average has been pushing .400), while chopping down, way down, on his strikeouts. He has been gashing pitches since Aug. 20 with the top slugging percentage (.750) in the big leagues, with a league-best 17 homers, all while batting .320 and pushing his season average to .247, which beats by a bunch .226.

His numbers will cool, of course. But notions the Tigers would need to wait until 2017 for Upton to begin hitting like, well, Upton, vanished during the past 30 days. A team got one of its stars back. The Tigers got their teammate back.

Best of all, Upton reunited with his vocation, with his craft, and with an inner serenity a manager helped deliver — to a player who knew from the outset the best assurance of all: that his team cared most about him.