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Justin Upton’s new approach

There usually isn’t much you can take out of a 15-5 loss. But on Wednesday night as I sat in the press box of Chase Field watching Arizona get drubbed by the St. Louis Cardinals, I saw something that got me pretty excited about the future of the Diamondbacks and of their prized right fielder.

Justin Upton had been destined for stardom from the day the D-backs selected him first overall in the 2005 draft. He was the five-tool player that was going to become the face of the franchise, hit 30-plus home runs every year, drive in 100 runs each season and carve out a Hall of Fame career in Sedona Red.

He made it to the majors at 19 years old in 2007 and just two years later he was an All-Star. He hit .300 in 2009 with 26 home runs and 86 runs batted in. The sky was the limit.

Sure there was still work to be done to make him a complete player. He was drafted as a shortstop and in the big leagues he was now a right fielder. He had issues with his fielding, a lack of hustle at times and had some alarming strikeout numbers.

Nonetheless the D-backs gave him a six-year extension for some $50 million and had a section in right field called “Uptown”.

Maybe all that money was too much to bestow upon a 23-year-old before he had really earned it. Maybe it was too much to ask him to carry a bad baseball team considering his lack of experience and too much to ask him to lead when he had no leaders to mentor him. Maybe it was too much to ask him to be the face of the franchise when his face was so young.

For all those reasons and more, Upton slumped last year to a .273 average with 17 home runs, 69 RBI and an alarming 152 strikeouts. This past off-season new General Manager Kevin Towers even put Upton’s name out on the trade block, wanting to see what the market would fetch for his services.

Towers didn’t really want to trade Upton; he just wanted to see if there was a team out there that was willing to completely overpay for him. There wasn’t.

The reality is that the bad season, trade rumors and frustrations of losing 97 games last year has driven Upton to reach his potential. He came into spring training determined to get his career back on track and to be the ballplayer that not only the fans and the organization expect him to be, but that he himself expects to be.

During spring training, I talked to Upton about giving away at-bats. He admitted that at times he would do that and vowed to correct it.

The D-backs were a bad baseball team in 2010. They were blown out of a lot of games, beaten down by one of the worst bullpens in history.

It is completely understandable that Upton was frustrated with the season. But what separates a good player from a great player is a player’s ability to approach each at-bat, no matter the circumstances, as if that at-bat is the most important at-bat of his life.

Easy to say right? How can an at-bat matter when your team is down five, seven, 10 runs late in the game? For Upton to be great he has to understand circumstances — when to hit the ball to the right side to move a runner over or when to shorten up his swing and take the sacrifice fly that drives in a run. It’s the little things that win baseball games and most great players can do the little things.

Most great players also cherish each and every at-bat they have. That was something that Upton didn’t do last year.

Let’s fast forward to Wednesday night. Arizona was down 15-5 with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning.

The outcome had already been decided. The D-backs were not coming back from down 10 in the ninth inning. Time to go home, get some rest and get ready for the next game.

Not for Upton. He looped a ball into right field and hustled out of the batter’s box, not stopping until he reached second base.

Meaningless double right? Heck no. That double said a lot about the maturity of Upton from last year to this year. Last year it would have been take some hard hacks, try to drive the ball out of the ballpark and striking out would have been no big deal.

This year it’s about playing the game the right way. It’s about making every at-bat matter and that every kid in attendance left knowing that he never gave up.

Upton is batting .295 with three home runs, eight RBI and only seven strikeouts in 44 at-bats. I know it’s early but his projections are 44 home runs, 118 RBI and just 103 strikeouts.

What does this mean? It means Upton is off to a great start. It means last season is but a distant memory. It means the sky is once again the limit for this talented baseball player.

And, to me, it means Upton is playing the game the right way, where every at-bat matters.