PHOENIX – Justin Upton is starting to feel good again, which should send a shudder through the rest of the National League.
Upton can carry a team, as he did the Diamondbacks for a three-month stretch of 2011, and he showed indications of returning to those good old days in a 9-5 victory over Philadelphia on Monday that was 9-0 entering the ninth inning.
He had his first RBI of the season on a sacrifice fly in the first inning, singled during a two-run second, and hit his first home run of the season in the fourth.
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The soreness that has occupied Upton’s left thumb since the first week of the season seemed about as far removed as the Kyle Kendrick fastball Upton hammered over the fence in left field to lead off the third inning for a 7-0 lead.
“He’s been coming,” manager Kirk Gibson.
“You saw him really aggressive.”
Upton’s season has been disjointed because of the bone bruise he suffered April 8. He was unable to take much batting practice on the D-backs’ last road trip, and after having fluid drained from the thumb last Tuesday did virtually no hitting at all last week. The down time not only messed with his timing but also prevented him from working on the little tweaks necessary. Furthermore, he was forced to slightly change his grip to accommodate the thumb.
After batting practice outside followed by a lengthy session in the indoor cage Sunday, however, Upton said he finally felt like he had turned the corner.
“It’s more my swing path more than anything. When I was playing with the thumb, I kind of got messed up. Now that it is feeling better, I am able to get in the cage and get a lot more work it. Now that it is feeling better, I’m able to get back to myself.”
Upton had 39 doubles, 31 home runs and 88 RBIs in 2011, and he takes it upon himself to be an anchor on the offense, which made the last two weeks especially frustrating.
“I feel like if I can go out and do what I am capable of doing, then I can be a good piece for the middle of this lineup,” Upton said.
Upton is not alone in feeling that way, of course.
Newcomer Jason Kubel, who stretched his hitting streak to seven games with two doubles and a home run, has been part of an impactful lineup before, when he was in the middle of the Minnesota order than included Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer.
A healthy Upton can make everyone around him better.
“He’s our big guy,” Kubel said.
“It puts the fear in the other team, too. They don’t want to mess up before they get to him and put guys on base, and they don’t to leave one over the plate for him. It opens up a lot of opportunities for a lot of guys.”
The D-backs had plenty of opportunities to hit in support of left-hander Wade Miley, who was nearly flawless in his first start of the season.
The D-backs had season highs in hits (16) and runs. John McDonald joined Kubel with three hits. Upton, Kubel and Cody Ransom drove in two runs. Ransom, still attempting to pass a kidney stone, hit a two-run doubles in the second, one the D-backs’ six doubles. Aaron Hill extended his hitting streak to six games, and came within a foot or two of his fourth home run in the first inning.
Miley, who took Daniel Hudson’s spot in the starting rotation, benefitted from offensive outburst, although with the way he pitched he did not need much. Miley, 2-0, gave up only two hits and a walk in six scoreless innings. He needed only 81 pitches.
Philadelphia never got a runner past second base on Miley, who previous three appearances had been in relief of Josh Collmenter. Miley retired the first seven, gave up a double, then retired the next seven. He had only two three-ball counts.
“He was ahead in the count, and when you get ahead in the count you get earlier swings. You can throw ball on the edges (of the plate) and induce swings. He hit his spots,” Gibson said.
“Start, relief, it doesn’t matter. Whenever you get to pitch, go out and pitch,” Miley said.