What we learned Monday: Justin Upton heating up for stretch run

1. AL Central race still up for grabs. Justin Upton has been one of the biggest disappointments in baseball after signing as a free agent with the Detroit Tigers, ranking 132nd out of 153 regulars in wOBA while posting his worst numbers since a 43-game stint as a 19-year-old rookie. But the past two games have relieved some of that disappointment, as he hit a three-run home run in the 11th inning on Monday, a day after hitting a go-ahead two-run homer in the eighth to beat the Royals. It has been an exciting stretch of wins for the Tigers. Their past five wins:

  • 5-3 over the White Sox in 11 innings.

  • 6-5 over the Royals with two runs in the eighth.

  • 7-6 over the Royals with two runs in the ninth.

  • 3-2 over the White Sox with runs in the eighth and ninth.

  • 8-4 over the White Sox after trailing in the sixth.

  • 4-3 over the White Sox with two runs in the eighth.

That's six wins in seven games, five of them comeback wins. The Tigers are 11-3 over the past 14 games -- a stretch in which Upton has hit eight home runs. They're tied with the Orioles for the second wild-card spot and while they're still 4.5 games behind the Indians, they have six left against their division rivals.

2. Brian Dozier chasing a record. This kind of sums up the season for the Minnesota Twins: Dozier hits three home runs and the Twins still lose by six runs. The second baseman has been on a hot streak for three-plus months now, hitting .316/.378/.698 since June 1, with 33 home runs and 74 RBIs in 87 games. He's second in the majors in extra-base hits with 75, one behind David Ortiz. It's pretty remarkable considering he was hitting .202 with five home runs through May 31.

Just as remarkable is that Dozier has extreme tendencies that you'd think pitchers would better exploit: He looks for something up in the zone to pull to left field. He has pulled 35 of his 38 home runs to left or left-center and only three of his home runs have come on pitches in the lower third of the strike zone. Only Jose Altuve and Nelson Cruz have a higher slugging percentage on pitches in the upper half of the strike zone and nobody beats Dozier in isolated power on those pitches. Part of his success is that he does a great job with his plate coverage. A lot of pull hitters are vulnerable away, but Dozier has seven home runs on high-and-away pitches, tied for third in the majors.

Dozier is now on pace for 45 home runs, which would be the single-season record for a second baseman:

Davey Johnson, Braves, 1973: 43

Rogers Hornsby, Cardinals, 1922: 42

Ryne Sandberg, Cubs, 1990: 40

Hornsby, Cardinals, 1925: 39

Hornsby, Cubs, 1929: 39

Alfonso Soriano, Yankees, 2002: 39

By the way, Dozier had the 19th three-homer game of 2016. The record is 22 in 2001.

3. Kyle Hendricks' Cy Young chances go up. After giving up one run in six innings against the Brewers to improve to 14-7 with an MLB-best 2.07 ERA, Hendricks has now allowed two runs or fewer in 12 of his past 13 starts (and gave up just three in the other). He also has yet to allow more than four runs in a game all season. That's impressive, although Tyson Ross of the Padres pulled off this feat last season, allowing four or fewer in all 33 of his starts.

The knocks against Hendricks for Cy Young consideration are that he ranks 10th in the NL in innings, 15th in strikeouts and outside the top five in WAR. He does, however, hold a big lead over Madison Bumgarner in ERA -- 2.07 to 2.51. The last pitcher with a such a big ERA lead over the No. 2 guy was Jake Peavy in 2007, who had a 2.54 mark to Brandon Webb's 3.01. Peavy won the Cy Young Award that year, but he also led the NL in wins and strikeouts, so he was a unanimous choice. A more direct comparison could be 1996, when Kevin Brown of the Marlins posted a 1.89 ERA, well ahead of Greg Maddux's 2.72. Brown went 17-11 but finished second in the Cy Young voting to John Smoltz, who went 24-8 with a 2.94 ERA. Smoltz also had 20 more innings than Brown and a huge lead in strikeouts, 276 to 159. This race still looks wide open, although Max Scherzer -- first in innings, strikeouts, WAR and wins (tied) -- might have emerged as the front-runner, with Clayton Kershaw an interesting dark horse if he makes four or five strong starts down the stretch.

4. Cole Hamels' Cy Young chances go down. Hamels gave up seven runs in 1⅔ innings in a 14-6 loss to the Mariners, his ERA rising from 2.91 to 3.25. Hamels needed a strong final month, although he did lead Corey Kluber in WAR entering the day, 5.7 to 5.6. Hamels isn't not out of the running, but he doesn't rank among leaders in other key categories and has allowed 13 runs is past two outings. At this point, the Rangers are more concerned about getting Hamels back to ace-level performance before the playoffs begin.

5. No-name Mets continue to hang close. With Neil Walker out for the season and Yoenis Cespedes, Asdrubal Cabrera and Curtis Granderson all getting the day off, the Mets ran out a makeshift lineup against the Reds. Matt Reynolds and Kelly Johnson homered and Bartolo Colon -- who said he'd like to return to the Mets in 2017 -- tossed six scoreless innings in a 5-0 victory. Where would this maksehift rotation, now down Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz, be without the old man? Since falling two games under .500 at 60-62 on Aug. 19, the Mets have gone 12-4. The Cardinals won, so the Mets remain a game behind them for the second wild card, but note the difference in remaining schedules: The Mets have just three games left against teams currently above .500 (the Nationals), while the Cardinals have six against the Cubs and four against the Giants.