A ‘minor setback’: Braves’ Upton taking positive approach to foot injury

Dale Zanine

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Melvin Upton Jr. (formerly B.J.) isn’t sure when or why or even how his injured foot became the first big storyline of the Atlanta Braves’ spring training.

He’s just as shocked as everyone else following the club.

"I went to see the doctor the other day" as a precautionary measure, recalled Upton, in his third season with the Braves, "… and 10 minutes into the (appointment), I had a cast on my foot."

An MRI exam revealed Upton’s injury to be sesamoiditis, a buildup in the bone behind the ball of the foot.

In laymen’s terms, the 30-year-old has steady inflammation in that foot, a painful malady which must be handled with care with when simply walking around the clubhouse — let alone performing the supremely athletic duties of a center fielder.

"The doctor saw some things he didn’t like … and here we are," says Upton, who "slipped" a couple of times during pre-camp workouts but didn’t think much of it at the time. "It’s just one of those things that you can’t find an explanation for — it just kind of happened."

To lessen the impact of the injury — which can only be mended through rest, at this juncture — Upton has been fitted for a walking-boot cast (balanced with a single walking crutch). And the speculation for his return remains open-ended.

"There’s no timetable. We’ll just go off progression," says Upton, when asked about the reports of a possible return in four, six or maybe eight weeks.

It’s been a rough 24 months for Upton. Since signing a lucrative contract with the Braves ($75 million), the older brother of Justin Upton — who was traded from Atlanta to San Diego during the offseason — has suffered through two porous campaigns, batting .184 with nine homers, 26 RBI, 30 runs and 12 steals in 2013 … and then hitting .208 with 12 homers, 35 RBI, 67 runs and 20 steals in 2014.

Last year’s tallies — including the .287 on-base percentage — served as across-the-board improvements from the previous season, but considerably less than Upton’s per-annum averages with the Tampa Bay Rays from 2008-12: 19 homers, 71 RBI, 36 steals, 83 runs, .255 batting and a .338 on-base percentage.

Through these struggles, the amiable, but soft-spoken Upton has learned to isolate himself from negative thoughts and merely rationalize on what can be done in the future.

"I’m going to focus on the positive," says Upton. "It’s the first week (of spring training); and least (the injury) occurred now and not in August, in the middle of a pennant race."

Spring training is certainly the time for hope and renewal. But even at full strength, the Braves offense — which lost Justin Upton, Jason Heyward and Evan Gattis during the offseason — might rank among the National League’s worst in the power-friendly categories of home runs, RBI, runs, on-base percentage, slugging and OPS.

And now, without Upton manning center field for the foreseeable future, the Braves might have to rely on a committee approach that includes Eury Perez, Todd Cunningham, Zoilo Almonte … or a mid-spring pickup from another club.

"I’m at a point in my career where I don’t let things get to me … mentally, I’m in a good spot," says the 6-foot-3, 185-pound Upton, who routinely comes into spring training in tip-top physical shape.

"It’s a minor setback; I’m looking forward to get (back) on the field."

The Braves, who open the season against the Marlins on April 6 (in Miami), are slated to play 22 games during the month of April.