More relaxed Upton ready for another big season

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Justin Upton By Jennifer Thomas Justin Upton By Jennifer Thomas

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) -- Justin Upton credits his big 2011 season to a more relaxed attitude.

Often his own worst enemy, he's eased up on himself, at least a little, and stopped worrying about living up to the expectations he's shouldered since the Arizona Diamondbacks made him the No. 1 overall pick in the draft nearly seven years ago.

"I think I finally got to a place where I was tired of beating myself up, being too hard on myself, setting too high of goals," he said in an interview before the team worked out on Wednesday. "If I can relax like I did last year, play the game, contribute to the rest of the lineup, and do what I can without getting outside of myself, I think that's a good place to be. `'

Still just 24, he is entering his fifth full season with the Diamondbacks and is in the third year of a six-year, $50 million contract. He is coming off a year when he set career bests in home runs (31), RBIs (88), hits (171), runs (105), doubles (39) and stolen bases (21). Playing in all but three games, he was a major component in the Diamondbacks' surprise run to the NL West title.

He hit a team-leading .289 and his strikeout total dipped to 128 in 159 games compared to the 152 times he fanned in 133 games the previous season.

Close friend and Arizona center fielder Chris Young said Upton naturally felt the pressure of expectations.

"It's hard not to do," he said. "You're a young player, you're the No. 1 draft pick. Everybody knows about you, everybody expects you to be this superstar player right at the gate."

He had some good seasons at a very young age, Young said, but everyone seemed to expect more.

"But last year it kind of all came together for him and he let that get away from him a little bit and started to have fun," Young said. "He understands that he's good. He understands where his talent is as far as the game goes. He works extremely hard. It doesn't just naturally happen. He works extremely hard and puts it all together when he's on the field."

Upton, the younger brother of major leaguer B.J. Upton, knows his temper has gotten the best of him in the past. His opponents know it, too. Maybe that has something to do with the fact he was hit by pitches 19 times last season, most in the National League.

"I've been a pretty easily rattled player in the past," he said. "I think they obviously tried to rattle my cage last year. They're always going to say `No, we didn't do it intentionally,' but a lot of times it was. It was just a message, and the message wasn't sent because Miggy (Miguel Montero, batting behind Upton) made them pay for it every time."

Diamondbacks pitchers often didn't retaliate because with his team in the thick of a playoff race, manager Kirk Gibson wanted nothing to disrupt the team's momentum.

"A lot of times we were hit by teams that weren't really in the race," Upton said. "They wanted to test us and we passed the test."

But Upton said he knows his pitchers have his back, and he hinted that things might be different if he continues to get hit regularly this season.

"Our pitchers aren't headhunters. None of their mentalities are like that," he said. "But at the same time they don't want to feel like one of their guys can get hit and get away with it. It's a touchy subject. You don't want to jump in that kind of fire. Going headhunting isn't part of the game but protecting your players is."

Asked about his upside, Upton mentions RBIs and consistency.

"In the future, I think I can consistently hit 25-30 homers," he said. "I've still yet to drive in 100 runs, which is something I want to do in my career and do consistently. The average is going to fluctuate when you have to give yourself up and take an RBI, and you drive out to the second baseman, those don't help you."

Gibson recalls a specific time he talked with Upton about pressing too hard after a game last May in Houston, then gave the young right fielder the next day off.

Gibson's message about the game was "Enjoy it. Don't stress along the way. Enjoy it and I think better things will happen."

But Gibson, who had more than a little edge to his play in his day, doesn't want Upton to lose that temper altogether.

"He's a quarter as bad as I was," Gibson said. "That never bothered me. You don't want him to totally change. He still has to keep that inside him, but he took it too far. I don't want him to think he's got to carry the team. We know if we can keep him relaxed and healthy and keep him playing, he's going to do more than his share."