Tigers' Upton gets first MLB start in center

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Baltimore — Manager Brad Ausmus doesn’t look at his most recent lineup change as a desperate act. Nor does he believe he did it just for the sake of making a change.

He sees it as taking advantage of an opportunity.

The Tigers lineup for the first of three games against the Orioles Thursday had Justin Upton in center field and left-handed swinging Steven Moya, fresh up from Triple A Toledo, in left field.

“It was kind of a perfect storm,” Ausmus said. “It’s a smaller yard (Camden Yards) that allows us to play Upton in center. We are facing four straight right-handed pitchers and we have kind of been searching for offense.

“So, after discussing it with Al (Avila, general manager) and the coaches, we decided this might not be a bad opportunity to take advantage of.”

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Upton has never played center field in his 10 big-league seasons. The last time he did play center field was in Double-A ball in 2007. He took fly balls and made throws from center during early batting practice, and shagged more fly balls during the team’s regular batting practice.

“You go out there and you catch the baseball,” he said. “It’s as simple as that. I am not going to overthink it. Just stand in the middle part of the outfield and catch the baseball.”

Ausmus said he would have a much harder time moving Upton into center field at more spacious ballparks like Comerica Park. But if the alignment worked, and he and Moya helped ignite the offense, he wouldn’t rule it out.

“If things go well, you never know,” he said. “But keep in mind, Cameron Maybin (center fielder finishing up his rehab assignment in Toledo) is getting close to returning.”

Moya has played mostly right field in Toledo, but he 87 career games under his belt in left field, including two last year in Detroit.

“He hasn’t played a ton of left field,” Ausmus said. “So he’s going to have to learn on the fly a little bit. But the park dimensions will help.”

Ausmus first approached Upton with the idea of being an emergency option in center after Tyler Collins was sent down on April 27.

“There was a possibility of having to play him there for emergency purposes, like if we had to pinch hit for (Anthony) Gose,” Ausmus said. “He didn’t have a problem with it, even though he hadn’t played there since the minor leagues.”

Said Upton, “It did take me by surprise. I hadn’t played there in a while. But Brad is shaking things up and I’ve got to do what I’m asked to do…I’m excited. It’s a new challenge. I haven’t played center field at this level, so we’ll see what happens.”

Upton, who broke an 0 for 19 skid with a double off Max Scherzer Wednesday, was also moved down a notch in the batting order. He had been hitting fifth, after Victor Martinez in the team’s regular lineup (one with a designated hitter). Nick Castellanos was moved into the fifth spot and Upton hit in the sixth spot.

“I am always seeing progress,” Upton said of his offense. “It’s ugly sometimes. Baseball is tough. But in my mind, I feel it coming. I know what I am capable of. I am going to continue to work and try to work things out.”

He’s hitting .221 and leads the American League with 53 strikeouts.

“I thought he swung the bat better the other night,” Ausmus said. “The double to center was a good sign. I feel like he and J.D. Martinez (who homered Thursday) are getting close.”

Twitter: @cmccosky