Tigers’ Upton: ‘Guys have to take it on themselves’

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
The Detroit Tigers' Justin Upton talks with trainer Kevin Rand before leaving the game Wednesday night. The Tigers announced he had a mild strain in his right quad.

Kansas City, Mo. — Well this was different.

Justin Upton was being asked questions about offensive struggles before the game Wednesday, but not his own. He spent the better part of four months answering questions about his own hitting issues last season.

This year, despite the Tigers’ collective hitting woes, Upton has been one of the most consistent producers. He leads the Tigers in home runs (nine), runs (30 - tied with Ian Kinsler), walks (25) and stolen bases (5).

“You can’t ever really put a thumb on it,” he said of the team’s recent slump. “At the end of the day, we have to start playing better. We have to have better at-bats, better defense — there are a lot of things that go into it.

“But guys have to take it on themselves to make things happen.”

The Tigers have been shutout three times on this road trip, four times in May. Twice they were blanked by pitchers making their big-league debut and in Houston by a quartet of relief pitchers.

“I feel frustrated because we need to get it going now,” Miguel Cabrera said after the 1-0 loss Tuesday night. “We need to step up and bring everything we got every day. We have to be better at home plate, have better at-bats.

“We need to try and make something happen, not just getting one home run. We need to get on base and let everybody do their job. First, we need to get on base. We don’t get on base, we don’t score.”

That was Upton's main point, too. Stop trying to do too much and focus on simply doing what the situation dictates.

“You have to play the game,” Upton said. “You do what the game tells you to do. You get in a situation. If you do the right thing in that situation, a lot of the time you will come out on top. Last night, we didn’t put runners on base. We didn’t have a chance to move runners. We didn’t have chance to drive a guy in from third with less than two outs.

“We didn’t put ourselves in those situations, so you can’t really expect to score runs.”

Upton hasn’t fully hit his stride yet, but he’s still miles from where he was at this point last season. Here’s the comparative numbers from last year on May 31 and this year:

2016 — .217/.264/.326/.590 with three home runs, 11 RBIs and 72 strikeouts.

2017 — .237/.337/.445/.782 with nine home runs, 23 RBIs and 62 strikeouts.

“Yeah, he’s way ahead of the pace,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “Generally, he’s been having good at-bats, too, even when he’s struggling he’s had good at-bats for the most part. He’s a good player, man. There is a reason he got so much money.”

Running the bases probably didn’t earn him an extra cent in the $132.75 million deal he signed with the Tigers. That money was earned with his bat, not his legs. But on a team that has long had difficulty running the bases, Upton’s sound instincts, his ability to go first to third and steal a base when needed stand out.

“Baserunning is always overlooked when it comes to guys who really hit,” Ausmus said. “Unfortunately, the one stat people look at is the stolen base and that’s not a true indicator of a good baserunner.

“J-Up can steal bases, but he has been a good baserunner outside of that. He can go first to third, he can get you an extra base.”

From 2009-2012, Upton averaged 19 steals a season. He’s stolen five bases in seven attempts this year and over his career, he has a 72-percent success rate (129-of-179).

“I can do it,” he said. “But like I said before, it’s if the game dictates it. Those are things you’ve got to do — take that extra base. That’s what’s most important. Go first to third on a base hit. If you can take a bag and you are capable of it, you should do it.”

Upton doesn’t consider himself a speed-burner or a base stealer. He navigates around the bases with instinct and guile.

“Those are learned things,” he said. “Some guys are just faster than the game. The older you get, the smarter you have to be on the bases. I am not as fast as I once was. At one point I could just outrun the baseball. Now, I have to pick my spots and understand what pitchers you can run on.

“Do the little things.”

Do the little things. Stay within your abilities. Grind out your at-bats, get on base anyway you can and keep the line moving. That’s the formula, espoused by Upton and Cabrera, that’s going to get the Tigers’ offense firing again.

Twitter: @cmccosky