McCosky: Upton among several offering ray of hope for Tigers

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
In the last 23 games, Tigers' Justin Upton is hitting .341 with eight doubles, five home runs and 26 RBIs. He’s also scored 17 runs.

Detroit -- Now that there is, perhaps, a crack in the dark cloud that has hovered over the Tigers the past couple weeks, and some of the hysteria has calmed — even if temporarily — maybe we can see some things more clearly.

And by more clearly, we mean not swathed in abject negativity.

Nobody is saying it hasn’t been rough. Nobody is happy or satisfied being nine games under .500 and being only a half-step better than the last place team in the division (White Sox).

Nobody is giving away pardons.

But if you let yourself see it, there’s some sunshine on the horizon. Buried in the muck of the eight-game losing streak, which was part of a longer 3-13 stretch of misery, aspects of this team are trending favorably.

To wit:

Justin Upton. If you are looking for your Tigers representative to the All-Star game, here’s your man. He’s been sensational, at the plate and in the field. Not only did he produce a pair of doubles and score twice in the streak-buster Sunday, he also made an incredible diving catch after a long run toward the left field line on a ball that was slicing away from him.

The catch saved a run, too, since the next hitter, Wil Myers, bashed a 403-foot homer to left field.

“He’s been the heart and soul of our lineup since Day One,” Nick Castellanos said. “Hitting home runs, driving guys in, taking extra bases, playing great defense — he’s a huge part of our team.”

And he’s been immune to whatever’s possessed the rest of the offense in this stretch. He’s reached base safely in 23 consecutive games, third in the majors behind Aaron Judge (27) and Joey Votto (24). In that stretch, he’s hit .341 with eight doubles, five home runs, 26 RBIs and he’s scored 17 runs.

“He’s been outstanding,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “Ironically, he struggled so mightily in the first half last year, and he’s been probably our most consistent offensive contributor this year.”

Justin Verlander. It’s time. All signs point to him getting on his yearly roll. He hasn’t Tweeted it out yet, but he’s about to dominate.

It’s taken far longer than he or anybody else wanted to get his mechanics back in order. But if those five perfect innings he threw at the Mariners in his last start are an indication, he’s ironed out the kinks.

Almost subconsciously, his shoulders got out of line in his delivery. He said it stemmed from trying to force extra velocity on his fastball.

“Which I don’t even need to do,” he said.

It’s a malady that golfers know all too well. When golfers try to force extra distance from their swing, it’s easy to get the legs moving too quickly, then the hips and upper body get out of whack. It was the same for Verlander, who got into the habit of rearing his shoulders back too far when he tried to get extra drive out of his legs.

The result was that his arm couldn’t catch up and he lost command and velocity, not to mention the bite on his slider and curve.

All of the above was back and in good form last Wednesday. He got 10 swings and misses on his fastball that ranged from 96-98 mph, and his slider and curve were as sharp as they’ve been all season.

“I’m excited by the way I felt,” he said. “It’s kind of what I’ve been searching for and feeling for this whole time. I think this is going to be good going forward.”

Mikie Mahtook

Mikie Mahtook. Enough with the platoon, already. It might be time to give Mahtook center field and let him run with it. Since May 31, albeit in just 16 games, he’s hitting .357 with a .595 slugging percentage and a .952 OPS.

He’s been platooned and playing mostly against left-handed pitching, but the reality is, he’s hit both righties and lefties equally this season — .250 vs. right-handers and .255 vs. lefties.

The two-run, game-winning single on Sunday was against a nasty right-handed pitcher named Brandon Mauer. Two of Mahtook’s four home runs this year came off right-handers.

He has shown a knack for getting clutch hits, remember the pinch-hit double to win the home-opener this year? He has played adequately in center field. The only player the Tigers have who is appreciably better in center field is JaCoby Jones, and he’s in Toledo.

Mahtook has earned a shot at playing every day. 

Starting pitching. It was not the problem during the losing streak. Until Sunday, when the home run ball bit Jordan Zimmermann again, the Tigers’ starters had been solid.

In the first six games of the road trip, they compiled a 3.72 ERA with opponents hitting just .190 against them. Michael Fulmer and Anibal Sanchez each threw a two-hitter and lost. Verlander was perfect through five and lost.

Sanchez looks like a new man on the mound. (Qualifier: it’s only been two starts). He is spotting pitches like he’s throwing darts, moving his fastball up and down and his breaking balls from side to side.

His change-up is like two pitches in one. He can vary the speeds — slow and slower — while manipulating it to sink or fade.

His margin for error — with a fastball that ranges from 89-91 — is still small. But if he’s hitting his spots, he will keep the Tigers in games.

It’s been two steps up, one step back for Daniel Norris thus far, but even when he doesn’t have his A stuff, like his last outing, he’s learning how to soldier through. He’s overdue to run off a batch of quality starts.

Relief pitching. A brutal stretch of games, for sure, especially for Shane Greene. But on Sunday, you saw a different mindset, a more aggressive tone to all five guys who pitched — Warwick Saupold, Alex Wilson, Daniel Stumpf, Bruce Rondon and Justin Wilson.

There was a nastiness to them that had been missing. Alex Wilson and Stumpf were fearlessly attacking the inside quadrant, crowding hitters and getting them off their breaking balls and cutters.

Stumpf has pitched with more confidence the last few times out. He threw a gutsy 3-2 slider to strike out Cory Spangenberg on Sunday; something he may not have done in his first few outings.

Justin Wilson, who hasn’t pitched much, looked fresh and his fastball was sizzling.

Rondon — stop us if you’ve heard this before — can be the difference-maker. He can be the elusive third late-inning guy Ausmus has searched for. His velocity was back in the upper-90s, even hitting 100 once. But what was different was his poise and command. When he fell behind, he had the confidence to throw a slider and get a strike.

It was only one game, only one win. No parades are planned.

But you have a choice. You can continue to wallow in the wake of the losing streak and dream of trade deadline deals that will make for even gloomier months ahead, or you can latch on to this little shaft of light and hope it leads to a run of sunny days. 

Twitter @cmccosky