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B.J. Upton: I will live up to big expectations

B.J. Upton, left, broke out of his slump with a homer Wednesday, but he's still batting a team-worst .155.

B.J. Upton, left, broke out of his slump with a homer Wednesday, but he's still batting a team-worst .155.

ATLANTA -- B.J. Upton is roughly five percent (42 of 810 games) into his intended tenure with the Braves, such a ridiculously small sample size that to stamp "bust" on his forehead now would be at the very least presumptuous and at worst like living in fear that the Loch Ness monster is hiding in your bathtub.

But this is what happens in Atlanta.

We slapped our forehead with every exploding organ by Mike Hampton, the zombie on the team's payroll. We watched the import of Kenshin Kawakami backfire and Derek Lowe deteriorate so much that the Braves paid Cleveland $10 million just to take him. More recently, there has been Dan Uggla, whose $35 million in salary in his first three seasons has yielded batting averages of (chronologically) .233, .220 and .187.

That's a lot of scar tissue for one fan base.

So when it's seven weeks into the season and B.J. Upton is lugging a .141 batting average, the initial thought obviously is: Oh dear, doom.

It's an involuntary reaction, like a doctor hitting your knee with a rubber hammer and your leg pops up (or, in Hampton's case, dislocates in three places).

Time for a cleansing breath?

"I just want to help this club win," Upton said Saturday. "Obviously I want to succeed individually, but it's just not happening right now, and there's nothing I can do about it. But it's not going to be like this all year, I know that."

That's good news for Liberty Media. Because even $26.6 billion corporations notice $75.25 million mistakes, and certainly the person who potentially makes them (Frank Wren).

Upton was booed during pregame introductions Saturday against Los Angeles. He was booed when he struck out looking to open the third inning and again when he struck out swinging to end the fifth.

When he came to bat in the eighth, few at Turner Field were oozing enthusiasm, but Upton lined a single to left field. The crowd reacted like the Braves had just won Game 7 of the World Series. Not quite but it did jump-start a rally, as Evan Gattis followed with a pinch-hit home run, Andrelton Simmons homered and the Braves won 3-1.

More significantly, could one hit signal a turnaround for Upton? His hit ended a 1-for-23 tailspin that had dropped his average to .139. He already is batting eighth. There's really no other place to hide him, save the bench, but manager Fredi Gonzalez has held off on an extended benching for now. Upton has sat for only four of 42 games this season (once because of an injury).

Upton isn't oblivious to the unmet expectations. He's on a new team, trying to live up to a big contract and playing in the shadow of his younger brother, Justin, who leads the majors with 14 homers.

Upton acknowledged the pressure but said, "I can't let that bother me. You can't force the issue. You just have to go over there, have fun and see what happens. At some point it will turn. When, I don't know."

The boos have been escalating, but he said, "Man, I've been booed before. I've been booed way worse than I'm being booed right now, and I'm sure it won't be the last time I'll be booed."

Upton possesses the rare combination of power and speed. But right now he's a mess.

Hitting coach Greg Walker has worked with Upton, but said at this point some of the issues are mental. Upton is pressing. He'll make mistakes in at-bats that he doesn't make in batting practice.

When asked if Upton is feeling pressure, Walker responded, "He's human. I've seen Hall of Famers with that same look (in their eyes). I think he's fought the fight pretty good. But he looked a little beat up (Friday) night (after going 0-for-4). This is a tough game mentally, and he's making a tough transition."

In Tampa Bay, Upton's reputation was that of a talented player who never lived up to his potential. There were a couple of incidents when he was benched for lackadaisical play. But the real question was whether he was worth such a significant investment.

Work ethic hasn't been an issue.

"We've had snow days where he spent two hours at the ballpark," Walker said. "We've had rainouts where he was working out. I've had to ask myself, 'Is he working too hard?'"

Walker said Upton is swinging late because of his foot movement. "If you watch his front foot, he goes to toe down early. You can't swing the bat when you're heel is in the air. He has to get into a balanced position and get his heel down to get a good swing."

Upton makes the corrections in the batting cage. But when the game starts, it's like somebody pushes the reboot.

"If we can just get what he's doing on the driving range to the first tee, then we'll be fine," Walker said.

Upton says his "bad habits have just kind of snowballed."

It's early: 42 games into one season of a five-year deal. Upton and the Braves are confident his fortunes will turn. Maybe so. But it's no wonder if some fear that the backdrop of previous mega-deal busts is providing foreshadowing.

Comments

VSU 1 year, 7 months ago

Well he better wake up then.

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