Upton's hard hits could be sign of breakout

Upton's hard hits could be sign of breakout

CLEVELAND -- Justin Upton and Ian Kinsler had a race going to see which of them would hit his 200th career home run first, a competition Kinsler won with his drive off the catwalk at Tropicana Field on Sunday. The way Upton -- who's at 198 -- has been driving the ball lately, he might not be far behind.

His go-ahead double on Sunday was pretty good consolation for a team that needed a big hit.

"It was a clutch situation, and he came through when the game was on the line," Kinsler said. "That's such a big hit."

Upton's hardest-hit ball on Sunday -- one of his hardest-hit balls of the season -- went for an out. With runners at the corners, two outs and Matt Andriese pitching, Upton hit a line drive that registered at 111 mph off the bat, according to Statcast™. But the ball went straight into the glove of Rays shortstop Brad Miller.

By comparison, his drive in the eighth inning with runners at first and second cleared shortstop, then barely eluded a diving attempt in left-center and rolled all the way to the fence, allowing the go-ahead and insurance runs to score.

It was the kind of break Upton needed.

"That's part of the game," Upton shrugged. "You square balls up and you don't get hits. That's what makes this game so tough. Got one to fall."

If Upton keeps making hard contact -- and improves his rate of making contact -- he has the potential to reverse his early-season struggles and go on a tear. His average launch speed of 91.14 mph is 1.7 more than the Major League average, per Statcast™. His hits are traveling more on a line than they are carrying, but they're centered.

That's just one of the reasons his teammates have his back.

"This is a team. Everybody's got their back," Victor Martinez said. "Whoever played this game knows how tough this game can be. There's a lot of people out there criticizing and talking because he got paid, this and that. It just doesn't work like that. The guy's working his [tail] off. Sometimes he works too hard and it might go against him, but that's a guy that always grinds.

"We always feel great when he's at the plate. When he's at the plate, he can make anything happen. He's been hitting pretty hard, and it's dangerous, because he's a guy that has a lot of power."

Said Kinsler: "We all know what he's going through right now. He's still out there battling, the same guy every day. Never hangs his head, plays hard, plays the game the right way. It's always nice to see one of your teammates come through like that."

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.