Tigers see signs of Upton heating up

May 19th, 2016

DETROIT -- The biting chill in the breeze that stuck around Comerica Park through April finally began to relent this week. The forecast is giving Michiganders a nod to what they've been anticipating for months since that frozen stretch of January but have only been teased about since Opening Day.

Justin Upton's bat is finally starting to warm up. What, you thought this was about spring in Michigan?

"He's looked a lot better the last week, I think," bench coach Gene Lamont said after Upton's ground-rule double to the deepest part of left-center field Tuesday night against the Twins.

"He hit the bleep out of two balls," manager Brad Ausmus said of the double and a lineout to the other gap before that. "Hopefully a sign of turning the corner."

Like the change of seasons, there's a feeling of inevitability with Upton's offense. He always had a reputation as a furiously streaky hitter, but also a track record of consistency at season's end. Upton will hit like an MVP in some stretches and look hopeless in others, but he has averaged 30 doubles, 25 homers, 80 RBIs and 147 strikeouts a year since 2009. Aside from his .251 batting average last season -- 19 points under his career clip -- his year-to-year numbers do not deviate far from the norm. At age 28, Upton is entering his physical prime years.

Nobody should have been shocked to see him slump, especially early in the year. No one would've expected it to go this long, especially Upton.

"It's a grind, obviously," Upton said. "I take pride in my work. When you're not getting results for it and you're not doing what you expect of yourself, then it's tough."

Upton entered Sunday with nearly twice as many strikeouts (59) as base hits (30), fanning in just under 40 percent of his plate appearances. His average, which had rebounded near the end of April, had dropped back to .208, its lowest in 2 1/2 weeks.

"He's been very frustrated," Lamont said. "I think you come into a big contract like he got, and you put extra pressure on yourself. He's a proud guy."

Even Ausmus, who espouses the long-term view of letting players perform to their track record, was starting to worry. When Cameron Maybin returned from the disabled list Monday, the Tigers sent down Anthony Gose and kept slugging prospect Steven Moya. The opening to let Upton clear his head and play Moya was there.

Then Upton started to hit: Two hits and a walk Sunday in Baltimore, a single Monday against the Twins, the drives Tuesday. Upton capped his series Wednesday with a smile from the BABIP gods, hitting a pair of bloopers that fell in between infielders and outfielders for singles. His third-inning loft just out of second baseman Brian Dozier's reach brought a two-out RBI.

Upton is 6-for-16 over Detroit's four-game winning streak. He has just four strikeouts in that stretch after six multistrikeout performances over his previous eight games. It's a small sample, but the at-bats behind the production are more important.

"Just trying to slow the game down and see the ball a little bit better," Upton said Tuesday. "I kind of shortened my swing, just try to make contact."