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Upton finds groove, Collins states case to make team

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Detroit Tigers' Justin Upton high fives on-deck batter Jarrod Saltalamacchia after hitting a home run off Philadelphia Phillies' James Russell during the first inning Saturday.

Clearwater, Fla. — At no point this spring has Brad Ausmus or anybody in the Tigers’ organization been worried about Justin Upton.

“He has a track record,” Ausmus said. “And he’s not at an age where you start worrying about it. Everyone knew it was coming. It was just a matter of when it clicked.”

Something certainly clicked on Saturday.

Upton came into the game hitting .189 with just seven hits, no homers and 15 strikeouts in 37 spring at-bats. He then proceeded to bang out four hits including a pair of monstrous home runs in the Tigers’ 6-5 win over the Phillies.

“The last four days it’s started to feel better, more comfortable,” Upton said. “It’s just getting everything going. It’s coming along.”

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The first home run, on an off-speed pitch from lefty James Russell, nearly cleared Bright House Field in left. It hit off the back fence that runs alongside Frenchy’s Tiki Bar, well beyond the left-field fence.

It’s one thing to hit a fastball that far, but to square up an 83 mph off-speed pitch in a two-strike count and hit it that far is, well, the mark of an elite hitter.

“You just react,” Upton said. “That’s a plus when you are seeing the ball that well that you are seeing even the off-speed that good — that’s part of the plan.”

The second homer, which broke a 2-2 tie in the sixth, nearly left the stadium in center field. It landed again at the back fence, just to the left field side of the batter’s eye.

“It’s part of the process,” Upton said of his spring. “Some springs it comes early and some it comes later. But it’s going to come at some point. You just have to stay the course.”

Upton and Tyler Collins accounted for seven of the team’s 10 hits and four of the six runs. Collins had a pair of triples and he threw out Ryan Jackson at the plate. Jackson was trying to tag and score on a medium depth fly ball to right.

“I can’t hit anything but triples right now,” Collins joked. “I’m not complaining, but I have never seen anything like it.”

Of his 14 hits this spring, five of them are triples. Nobody else in the major leagues has more than three triples this spring. He credits a new hitting approach he began using late last season.

"I am just staying more calm in the box," he said. "It makes it a lot easier to see the ball. I am loading (on his back leg) softer and more controlled. No more guessing. Just see it and hit it."

Collins is emerging as the front-runner to make the club as a fifth outfielder and be the backup center fielder in the absence of injured Cameron Maybin.

“Nothing is decided, so from that standpoint any option is on the table,” Ausmus said. “It’s not like we’re closing the door on any other possibility.”

It was the fifth spring start for Justin Verlander and it’s not one he will dwell much on.

He threw 86 pitches (58 strikes) in five innings, allowing seven hits and three runs.

Mark Lowe, expected to be one of the late-inning setup men, allowed a pair of runs in the seventh. He gave up three singles, and was victimized by a mental mistake by first baseman John Mayberry, Jr.

With runners on first and third and one out, Mayberry fielded a ground ball from Howard. Instead of throwing to second and starting an inning-ending double play, he hesitated and threw home.

The throw was late, run scored.

The Tigers pulled the game out with a two-out, two-run single in the top of the ninth by minor league shortstop Gustavo Nunez. Logan Kensing earned the save with a clean ninth.

Twitter @cmccosky