Brewers expecting to see vintage Braun in 2012
With Fielder gone, NL MVP more crucial than ever for Crew
PHOENIX -- On the first day of batting practice during his winter of discontent, the most talked-about player in baseball broke three windshields. Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun was hitting at Pepperdine University, where cars park in a lot over the left-field fence at their own risk. One unlucky Southern Californian was still in the driver's seat when Braun's baseball arrived.That was in early February, and even if Braun's Cactus League stat line doesn't show it, his Brewers coaches and teammates have been insisting all spring that Braun brought the same power show to Spring Training. After watching from afar as Braun won the National League MVP Award, then fought -- and won -- an appeal of a drug suspension, those allies are convinced it will be business as usual come Opening Day. "Have you seen his BPs?" Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke said, using the universal shorthand for batting practice. "They're incredible." Whether Braun turns his quality BPs into quality at-bats under the bright lights of the regular season will go a long way in determining whether the Brewers repeat as champions of the NL Central. They have essentially the same pitching staff but are missing Prince Fielder at the heart of the batting order. Braun is more pivotal a player than ever.
So on a sunny March morning at Maryvale Baseball Park, we watched Braun take batting practice.Round 1 is about right field. Braun lines four straight pitches the opposite way to the gap, where Brewers pitchers mingle under the late-morning sun. Rounds 2 and 3 are line drives to all fields. Third-base coach Ed Sedar's first pitch is wide and Braun takes it -- something he does at least once in every round -- then hits the next three pitches to right field, center and then left. Finally, on the final pitch of Round 3, Braun hammers a pitch over the left-field fence, where a lone guy with a baseball glove shags home runs. In Round 4, that guy is busy. Braun hits three deep drives in one stretch, two that clear the left-field wall and one that strikes the center-field wall, 400 feet from home plate. "He has as much power as ever," said right fielder Corey Hart, Braun's closest friend on the team. "He's been the same to me -- still hitting the ball great in BP," second baseman Rickie Weeks said. "It's hard to ask anybody to repeat an MVP season, but I have no doubt that he's going to come out, play hard and have another great year." Said catcher Jonathan Lucroy: "I guarantee you, when the bright lights come on, he's still Ryan Braun." Braun has his eye on those bright lights. "I'll be ready on April 6," he said. 'It's a process' Braun's challenge has been to keep his spring focus simple. He speaks of process, over and over, rather than Cactus League results. "We play a game that is obviously very result-oriented, but everything that leads up to that is about process," Braun said. "So I use batting practice to prepare myself for the game, to put myself in the best position to be successful and consistent. "Every day, there is a plan. Normally I start off focusing on using my hands, trying to let the ball get deep, hit it the other way. I gradually start to hit the ball where it's pitched, then in the last couple of rounds I'm swinging a little harder. It's a process." Yet he spent much of the spring talking about results. Braun batted .161 in Spring Training games. Hart has a particular understanding of Braun's spring "slump." He left Arizona in 2010 with a .123 batting average, and needed a couple of two-hit exhibition games against the Tigers to boost his Spring Training average to .172. The Brewers left Hart off the All-Star ballot -- giving the nod to veteran Jim Edmonds, who started Opening Day in right field. Hart bounced back, reclaiming right field, claiming a spot on the National League All-Star team and then signing a contract extension that August. Braun, Hart conceded, is in a different situation. His job is secure, which is what happens when you win four straight Silver Slugger Awards, top 150 home runs and 500 RBIs in your first five seasons (the ninth player in Major League history to do so), win a league MVP Award and sign a contract that runs to the next decade. Braun is also different in that he's coming off a winter spent in the headlines. Braun faced a 50-game suspension based on the results of a urine test during last year's NL Division Series. That story has been covered in such detail that only the abbreviated version is relevant as Opening Day looms: Braun appealed, won that appeal in an unprecedented decision by a three-member special panel, then arrived in Spring Training to take an extra step and emphatically declare his innocence. Then he went to work, only the spotlight stayed bright. "That was a hard offseason to go through, and it's going to be a hard season to go through," Roenicke said. "He'll certainly be challenged, but knowing Ryan and his makeup, I'm hoping that feeds into him in a way that becomes positive. "If you guys go out and watch him when he is taking batting practice, there is no difference than what I saw last year. None. He hits balls that I look at and I'm just amazed." Braun is working with a new hitting coach this year in Johnny Narron, who spent the last five seasons helping to guide slugger Josh Hamilton in his path away from drug and alcohol addiction. For five years Narron watched potent offensive teams in Cincinnati and Texas before getting his break as a hitting coach with the Brewers. "[Braun] knows his swing and what he needs to do to get ready. He's in a great place," Narron said. "He's ready to go. He's a professional hitter, and he has a plan every day, every at-bat, against every pitcher he faces." Narron has been around long enough to know the value of Spring Training statistics. Remember Jake Fox, who owned the highlights last spring when he hit 10 Grapefruit League homers for the Orioles? He played 27 games in the regular season. And Erick Almonte of the Brewers, the onetime wiry shortstop who rode a .416 Cactus League average to a big league break after seven years? He hit .103 in 16 games with Milwaukee and was sent down. In other words, spring stats usually don't mean squat. In Braun's case, they've made headlines. Challenges ahead "I get it," Braun said in mid-March, when he was off to his slow start. "I know people are going to be paying more attention. But for me, my goal is to try to have the same approach I've always had. Prepare myself for the start of the season." Braun knows that he'll hear it this season when the Brewers are on the road. This has previously been the territory of Fielder, who was heckled, often cruelly, by hostile fans during his six full Brewers seasons. Braun -- outgoing, fan-friendly, smiling -- received very little of that harsh treatment. After his tumultuous offseason, that could change early in 2012. "I try not to pay attention to it," he said. He has bigger things in mind. Braun batted .332 last season with 33 home runs, 111 RBIs and 33 stolen bases, topping the Dodgers' Matt Kemp in NL MVP balloting. Braun was the first Brewer to win league MVP honors since Hall of Famer Robin Yount in 1989. Like Yount, Braun would like to win a second. Teammates are eager to see how Braun confronts this latest challenge. "I don't care if you're the toughest player or the weakest player, when you've never gone through something before, you just don't know," Weeks said. "But I've talked to him before about it, and I'm sure he'll get through this. He's a tough-minded guy. A confident-minded guy. I'm pretty sure he'll get through it."