Justin Upton had to scoff when an Angels hitting coach warned him a few months ago that he might not feel like himself at the plate for some time.
It was June. Upton had spent the first 72 games of the season on the injured list recovering from a pesky left big toe sprain. He was already frustrated with how long it had taken him to rehabilitate the injury he sustained in late March. Upton, 31, also missed most of spring training because of a right knee injury. He had never been sidelined for so long in his 13-year career.
He didn’t care to hear that readjusting to facing big-league pitching after a six-game rehab stint with high-Class A Inland Empire would be tough.
“Shawn Wooten tried to tell me it’s going to be kind of rocky missing the time and not seeing the pitches,” Upton said, recalling the conversation two months later in the visiting clubhouse at Globe Life Park on Tuesday morning. “Me being myself, I was like, ‘Nah, I’ll be fine.’”
He felt justified when he hit a home run on the first pitch he saw, a 424-foot shot to left-center field at Rogers Centre in Toronto on June 17. He added a second hit in the same inning and helped the Angels, then 3½ games out of playoff positioning, approach a .500 record for the first time since mid-April.
But Upton was not fine. He soon crashed back to earth. So did the Angels, who won 12 of 18 after the death of Tyler Skaggs July 1 before plummeting out of contention. Upton struggled so mightily after the All-Star break that manager Brad Ausmus, who had experience with Upton’s brand of streakiness from their shared time in Detroit, benched Upton on July 30.
It took about two weeks but Upton has finally shown signs of putting the monthlong slump behind him. He has batted nine for 34 with three home runs, 14 RBIs and a .940 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in his last 10 games. His slugging percentage has improved nearly 40 points to .422 in that span. He has struck out only nine times in his last 40 plate appearances, a much more favorable proportion than the 36.8% strikeout rate he carried in his first 21 games of the second half.
“I won’t know for a few weeks whether he’s gotten back completely,” Ausmus said, “but he seems to be trending that way.”
Improved plate discipline has been key. Upton swung at 28.6% of pitches outside the zone from July 12 to Aug. 8. He has offered at about 10% fewer outside pitches since Aug. 9. Minor adjustments helped.
“I’m a big believer that if you’re not mechanically sound then you can’t get good pitches to hit,” Upton said. “You’re not gonna put the swing on it that you want to. They can go hand in hand. If you’re sound mechanically it can slow the ball down for you and help you put good swings on it.”
But the increased number of repetitions, as Wooten warned, have been more important.
“I never had that layoff before,” Upton said. “I didn’t know what to expect.… It ended up being pretty rough. Made the adjustments and I’m having a little bit of success now.”
Reliever Adalberto Mejia was designated for assignment by the Angels for the second time in a month. The Angels needed pitching depth after Monday’s 11-inning game. The left-hander had pitched three of the last four games. Right-hander Jaime Barria, starting the second game of Tuesday’s doubleheader, took Mejia’s spot on the active roster.… Reliever Luke Bard was selected as the Angels’ 26th man for the games.