Upton played through season-long injury
PHOENIX — It was not easy being Justin Upton this year. He suffered a banged-up thumb and a bruised ego, and he spent a few weeks on the open market in his first season after gaining national prominence during his 2011 MVP run.
Upton’s power numbers were maybe 80 percent of what they were a year ago because he played the season at maybe 80 percent hand-health-wise. Upton was not really himself until the final six weeks of the season, when his numbers spiked after he was able to remove a brace used to protect the left thumb he bruised sliding into second base on the third day of the season.
He has steadfastly refused to use that as a crutch. In fact, you cannot get Upton to acknowledge the injury was a factor at all.
“If there was something, I don’t regret it one second. We’ll just leave it at that,” Upton said.
Upton refused to go on the disabled list when advised by team doctors in April, lest he be considered a deserter. Friend Chris Young had been placed on the disabled list a day or two before, and Upton did not want to leave his team two starters down.
“I love being able to be on the field with these guys. That’s what I wake up for every day, to come here to the ballpark to be a part of this clubhouse and be on the field with these guys. I’m never going to strand these guys,” Upton said.
“It’s something I had to live with. I feel like I gave everything I had this season. I can go home with my head high. If I’m not 100 percent but I can play, I’m going to play.”
Playing without his typical power stroke until the last six weeks, Upton hit .280 with 24 doubles, 17 home runs and 67 RBIs. It was not 2011 — .289, 39 doubles, 31 homers, 88 RBIs — but it was not bad.
After going braceless, Upton had six doubles, eight homers and 18 RBIs in the final six weeks of the season, starting when he hit two homers in three days beginning with his inside-the-park sprint against San Diego on Aug. 25, the day he turned 25.
As one teammate put it, “He is still young, and he has so much talent. He did all that in a bad year.”
D-backs manager Kirk Gibson fully supported Upton’s decision to play through the injury, a path Gibson often took.
“I would argue 80 percent of Justin Upton is better than 100 percent of many people in the game,” Gibson said. “Anybody who has played the game understands that you get dinged up and you can either play or not play. He made that choice. I understand that it affected him.”
Neither Upton nor Chris Young was healthy most of the year, but both played on whenever possible.
“C.Y. (Young) was really instrumental in getting ‘J-Up’ to go. He was, ‘Let’s go for it,’” Gibson said.
“Their demeanor is not to look back. You either go or you don’t. You have a bad thumb or have a bad shoulder, the guys on the other team, they do not care. That goes with it. They both played through injuries this year. Guys who play hard, they are the guys that get banged up. There you have it.”
Upton was hurt in a different way when he struggled early, as managing partner Ken Kendrick called him an “enigma,” which was not meant as a pejorative but still served to sting. Kendrick has been very supportive of Upton since, and he said at the All-Star break that Upton would not be traded.
The chances of a trade grow in the offseason, when there are more suitors as teams work to remodel. Upton understands that an outfielder or two probably will have to go given the D-backs’ outfield depth.
“There is going to be change. I’m hoping it’s not me,” Upton said. “I’m going to be optimistic about the situation. This is where I played my career. I enjoy it. You never know what is going to happen. Hopefully they make some moves and we come back a better ball club.”
Upton said he does not need any assurances about his situation from management as the offseason begins.
“I can’t expect that from them. They have to do their job. I can’t expect them to come to me and say, ‘You’re going to be here.’ It’s going to be important for communication and the direction that the team is going in. I’m optimistic that I will be a Diamondback, and until something is different, I’m in this uniform.”
Upton and Gibson also had their ups and downs this season, as Gibson held Upton out of the lineup for several days in June as Upton battled through a 4-for-28 skid, certainly due in part to his bothersome thumb.
“Me and Gibby, everybody knows we’ve have our run-ins this season. He’s been in my court. I can appreciate that. Everybody’s been positive right now,” Upton said.
“It’s been a rough season. I don’t wish every season like this by any means. I think I learned a lot from it. You definitely grow as a player. More than anything, I grew more mentally this season. Being mentally tough. From the grind of the season to whatever was said and the different things that went on, you learn from it.”