ST. LOUIS — He’s said all the right things about his recently decreased playing time, but it’s pretty clear B.J. Upton is frustrated by the situation.
The struggling Braves center fielder was out of the lineup Sunday for the seventh time in 13 games, including two of four games since right fielder Jason Heyward went on the disabled list with a broken jaw.
“Obviously I want to play,” he said Sunday morning. “It’s not my doing…. I’ve always been the guy who, even at my worst, I’ve always played through it, and always been out there every day. So, you know, it’s really out of my hands.”
Upton, 29, has been at his very worst in his first season with the Braves and the first of a five-year, $75.25 million contract.
His .182 average before Sunday was the lowest in the majors among the 275 players with at least 250 plate appearances. His .263 on-base percentage was tied for ninth-lowest, and he had 12 doubles, eight homers, 21 RBIs, 36 walks and 124 strikeouts in 329 at-bats.
There’s a saying that you can’t hit your way out of a slump from the bench, but it appears Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez finally tired of letting Upton try to turn things around, after sticking with him as a lineup regular for nearly three-quarters of the season.
Upton went 10-for-21 with two doubles from Aug. 3 through Aug. 7 in his first five games back from a three-week DL stint for a strained adductor muscle. But since then, he’s 1-for-31 with one walk and 15 strikeouts in his past 12 games, and his playing time has eroded. That’s something the veteran had never experienced.
“I guess it’s what it is,” he said, and acknowledged it’s a no-win situation if he says much other than that. “I’m fine. I’m good. I know where I’m going. Every time I feel like I’m getting to where I want to be it’s like…”
He stopped without finishing the sentence.
Asked if that meant he’s out of the lineup each time he starts to feel like he’s got something going, Upton said, “Whatever the case may be.”
The former Tampa Bay Rays slugger is one of the few Braves with playoff experience, having hit .267 with seven homers and 18 RBIs in 25 postseason games with Tampa Bay in 2008, 2010 and 2011.
“I know,” he said. “I’ve been there, man. There’s a select few guys in this clubhouse that can say that. G-Money (Gerald Laird) has got a World Series. My brother (Justin Upton) has been in the NLCS. I was in the playoffs three out of four years, got an American League championship ring. So I know what it takes to get there, man. I know what it’s like when those lights are on.
“And a series like this (against the Cardinals) could be a preview.”
That was one reason that being out of the lineup for two of four games against the Cardinals stung. Another is that it’s August, and it was around this time last season when Upton showed how quickly he could go from slump to surge.
After getting off to a terrible start in 2012, he hit .349 with seven homers and 18 RBIs in 17 games from June 23 through July 16. Then, just as quickly as he’d gone to scorch mode, he cooled to .167 with three homers and nine RBIs in his next 41 games. Then he flipped the switch again, hitting .363 with 16 extra-base hits (five homers) and 20 RBIs in his final 24 games.
“That’s part of it, too — I think I kind of have a track record of these being my two months,” said Upton, whose highest homer and RBI career totals have been in August (27 homers, 95 RBIs) and September (30 homers, 90 RBIs), along with his two highest slugging percentages.
Jordan Schafer has started nine of the past 13 games, including seven in center field. He’s started all four games since Heyward got hurt, including starts in left field Friday and Saturday and starts in center Thursday and Sunday.
Justin Upton has moved from left field to right in place of Heyward, who could miss at least the rest of the regular season.