He was the best power hitter in the majors in the first three weeks of the season, but the Braves’ Justin Upton had been a shell of his former self for two-and-a-half months since.
The past two nights in Miami, he served notice. The power stroke was dormant, not dead.
Upton hit two doubles and a long home run Tuesday to lead the Braves in a 6-4 win against Miami at Marlins Park, their 12th win in 14 games at the retractable-roof stadium that opened last season. His brother, B.J. Upton, also had two hits and a sacrifice fly.
“It’s good, man,” Justin Upton said of the siblings’ contributions. “As the season progresses, it’s been different guys at different points. You’ve just got to kind of ride it till you’re clicking on all cylinders. It’s nice to have us both swing the bat well tonight.”
Justin Upton had two doubles and three RBIs in the 14-inning series opener Monday, including the tie-breaking double that keyed the Braves’ six-run final inning in a 7-1 win.
He topped that by collecting three extra-base hits in his first four at-bats Tuesday, including a towering leadoff homer in the seventh inning that pushed the lead to 6-4. It was his 16th homer, but only his second in his past 44 games.
“If you see any hitter start to hit the ball hard the other way, they’re very close (to getting hot),” B.J. Upton said. “He’s been doing that lately. He’s definitely cleaned some things up, and he’s trying to keep it simple.”
Julio Teheran (7-4) overcame shaky defense early and worked 7-1/3 strong innings, allowing seven hits and two walks with three strikeouts. Because of a second-inning error by third baseman Chris Johnson, only one of four runs charged to Teheran was earned.
Craig Kimbrel struck out two in a perfect ninth inning for his 24th save.
Brian McCann added two RBIs for the Braves, who moved their lead back to six games over the second-place Nationals. But the most encouraging development for the Braves had to be the Uptons’ performance.
Justin Upton hit .302 with 12 home runs and a .779 slugging percentage in his first 23 games through April 27. Then he hit .220 with three homers and a .305 slugging percentage in his next 60 games through Sunday.
“It’s a long season,” said manager Fredi Gonzalez, whose Braves improved to 3-2 on the six-game trip. “I know we’re always looking for more, but there’s going to be some ups and downs, and you’ve got to be patient with the guys. They’ll be fine. He (Justin Upton) is starting to swing it like he did early in the season, and you see other guys starting to have good at-bats. Maybe not getting a hit in the boxscore, but hitting the ball hard. Those are good signs.”
For two nights, the Marlins have felt the wrath of Upton’s pent-up frustrations. He has five extra-base hits, a sacrifice fly and five RBIs in the series, and the Braves have clinched just their second series win in their past 10 road series.
A win on Wednesday would give them their third road-series sweep and first since sweeping the Marlins and Nationals in consecutive series on the first trip of the season. After losing their first game against the Marlins in 2012, the Braves have won 20 of the past 26 against them.
Despite having one Upton (B.J.) slump severely for three months, and the other struggle since late April, the Braves have had sole possession of first place in the National League East since the sixth day of the season. That’s a big reason the Braves say their team can get better: Only a matter of time before both Uptons start hitting like they’ve hit before.
“I’m starting to feel better at the plate. Actually, a lot better,” said B.J. Upton, who has a majors-worst .178 average, and a .574 OPS that’s the third-lowest among major league qualifiers. “I’m just hitting the ball hard, and hopefully I can take this right into the break and have something to build on.”
He hit four balls on the nose Tuesday, including a line out to third base with two on in the third.
“It’s good to see,” Justin Upton said of his brother’s improvement. “He’s stung a few balls at people on this road trip. He’s had two hits taken from him in the last two days. Just got to keep swinging it, and they’ll fall.”
The Braves jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the second inning when Freddie Freeman hit a leadoff double, advanced on a groundout and scored on B.J. Upton’s sacrifice fly to give the Braves a 1-0 lead.
But the Marlins answered in the bottom of the second. Left fielder Justin Upton got a bad read and was late to Logan Morrison’s leadoff single near the line, and Marcell Ozuna followed with a grounder that skipped off the glove of Johnnson.
Teheran picked off Morrison straying too far from second, and struck out Derek Dietrich. But after Adeiny Hechevarria’s two-out single, Rob Brantly pulverized a 2-1 pitch down the right-field line. The only question was whether it would stay fair. It did, and the three-run homer – Brantly’s first of the season – gave the Marlins a 3-1 lead.
The Braves were just getting started. Jason Heyward scored from first base on Justin Upton’s one-out double in the third. Upton went to third on a ball-four wild pitch, and McCann’s sacrifice fly drove in the tying run, 3-3.
“I just think in the last week or so, we’ve been swinging the bats well as a whole,” B.J. Upton said. “Justin swung the bat well tonight. We had some other guys come up with some hits when we needed them. Whenever they answered, we came right back and scored some runs. And Julio kept us in the game, kept them at four runs.”
Teheran gave up a run on two singles and a walk in a four-batter span to start the third, then got two groundouts to strand two runners. That began a stretch in which he retired 15 of the last 18 batters he faced.
“I thought Julio did a terrific job after the second inning,” Gonzalez said. “We put him behind the eight-ball a little bit, but I thought he did a great job minimizing his pitches the rest of the game. After that second inning, I’m going, ‘Oh, boy, here we go. He’s going to be out after the fifth or sixth.’ But he did a hell of a job getting us deep in the ballgame….
“He just went after them. The second inning wasn’t his fault. We misplayed a ball behind him that could have been a double-play ball. He pounded the strike zone. Him and McCann did a good job throwing the ball over the plate, and mixed the pitches well. We needed that type of outing today after going 14 innings.”
Teheran kept his pitch count down by getting hits on batted balls instead of striking out as many as he had in recent starts.
“I was trying to put the ball in play, let them hit it,” he said. “I know they were swinging, and I was just making pitches. And they got the ground balls.”
Teheran recollected what he told Braves relievers before the first inning.
“I told the bullpen, I’ve got this game, to let them rest,” he said, smiling. “Then after I came out, they said, I thought you were going nine innings? I said, Sorry, I tried.”