CLEARWATER, Fla. -- A scout who's been covering the Braves this spring uttered these words Friday morning. You might want to jot them down:
"It looks like Justin Upton is on a mission."
He spoke those words a day after Upton orbited what might have been the longest home run ever launched at Champion Stadium in Disney -- a 12,000-foot monster mash that cleared the clock that sits atop the left-center-field scoreboard, 60 feet up, about 395 feet from home plate.
“I've never seen a ball hit over that board -- not in a game,” said Braves bullpen coach Eddie Perez. “That should count as two home runs.”
He’s got a real simple swing, and he’s got exceptional quickness and timing. He’s just coming into his prime, as far as I’m concerned.
”-- Braves hitting coach Greg Walker
It's no easy feat to hit a ball in any ballpark that literally disappears. But this one did, Perez said. He said a group of fans who were hanging out in the area behind the scoreboard spent quite a while searching for it but never found it. Their best theory: “It’s like it disappeared into the grass or something,” Perez said.
“The best part,” he said, “is, when he hit it, everybody in the ballpark stayed quiet. It was like they all wanted to see if the ball would go over the clock. Then they all went, 'Whoooooaaaaah, he did it.'"
Well, judging by the way Upton is swinging the bat, it might not be the last whoooooaaaaah he inspires.
Since March 16, he's 7-for-14, with three home runs, nine RBIs and seven runs scored. And all three homers have been epic.
Before that, Upton was hitting only .214 this spring (9-for-42), with two home runs. So what’s happened in the past week? It’s no coincidence. Braves hitting coach Greg Walker says Upton just went “back to the way he used to swing.”
Upton, Walker said Friday, had decided over the winter to make some “subtle” changes to his swing. And because he was new to the Braves, they decided to stay out of his way and let him work through his early-spring struggles.
“He was scuffling,” Walker said. “But one day last week, he just came up to me on the bench and said, 'I think I’m going to go back to swinging the way I used to.' I said, 'I like it.'
“We had kind of hinted around at that. What he was trying to do, it kind of worked on paper. But it didn't work for him. He kind of lost his hand slot. He lost his hand move. And we didn't push him the first month of camp because he’d never even met us. So we didn't want to start telling him what he couldn't do. But we were all kind of just sitting back, waiting for him to hit a brick wall and say, 'OK, I’m just going to go back and hit the way I've always hit.’ And the first day he went back to it, we just said, 'OK, that’s you.’”
And what they've seen since has left them “ecstatic,” Walker said.
“He’s got a real simple swing, and he’s got exceptional quickness and timing,” he said. “He uses his legs tremendously. Everything he does works for me. I just think sometimes, he’s been around so long, you don’t realize he’s 25 years old. He’s just coming into his prime, as far as I’m concerned.”
Upton is coming off a season in Arizona in which he hit only 17 homers and slugged just .430, a drop of nearly 100 points from his MVP-caliber season the year before. But the Braves are convinced, Walker said, that “with the thumb injury he had last year, I think he got into some bad habits.” And if this is the swing he carries into the season, it wouldn't surprise anyone if he has a huge year.
Besides his shot over the scoreboard, he’s also whomped a line-drive homer that cleared the berm behind the left-field fence and a more majestic shot to left cleared the pennant flags that sit atop that berm.
“The one he hit over the flags, that ball went into the parking lot,” Perez said. “I don’t know anybody that’s ever hit a ball into that parking lot, but he did it. He’s amazing, man. I didn't know he had that much power. I throw to him every day, and it’s fun. The only time I ever stop and watch [after giving up a batting-practice homer] is when he hits it. I don't do that for anybody. But I do with him. He’s just so much fun to watch.”
Well, if that’s how he looks to the men on the inside, and if he looks, to those on the outside, like a man on a mission, the Braves just might have made themselves one heck of a trade.