The doctor is in for the Cleveland Indians and, this time, this diagnosis appears good.
Michael Brantley returned to Cactus League action on Monday afternoon with an encouraging performance against the Los Angeles Dodgers from Goodyear, Arizona. He followed it up with another appearance on Wednesday as the Indians dropped a 10-2 decision to Colorado at the Rockies’ spring home at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick.
The pair of spring training games marked a new high-water mark for Brantley in his return to the field on his long road back from a September 2015 right shoulder injury that limited him for much of 2016 until surgery on his right bicep shut him down for good later in the season.
For Brantley, it was another huge hurdle jumped in his goal of returning to the Cleveland lineup for the first time since being shelved after his final appearance of last season on May 9.The Indians have been slow and cautious with their handling of their one-time All-Star, who had to sit by last year while his teammates played in one of the classic games in World Series history. A lineup that was good enough to get that far could become even more scary with Dr. Smooth slotted back into regular duty in left field.
Without Brantley, the Tribe outfield picture mirrors its hazy appearance from a spring ago and would be, on paper, worse for the wear. Lonnie Chisenhall and Brandon Guyer look to be destined to platoon in right field, while Tyler Naquin and Abraham Almonte may very well do the same in center field for manager Terry Francona’s ball club. Left field, however, would be wide open with an extended absence from him, with guys like Almonte, Guyer, non-roster invite Michael Martinez, or free agent addition Austin Jackson in the mix to play in the corner. With the injury to second baseman Jason Kipnis, Martinez may be needed more as a bench piece or could even see work regularly at second base, limiting how much he may be able to contribute to the Tribe’s outfield.
After logging some work in simulated games and then hitting the diamond in minor league game action, Brantley returned to the lineup for Cleveland on Monday as they hosted Los Angeles. Hitting second in the batting order and playing left field, Brantley jumped quickly at the chance to swing against live MLB pitching in the bottom of the first and reached base safely on a fielding error at first base. He would come around to score later in the inning as the Tribe plated four runs. He delivered an RBI single in the bottom of the second to extend the lead to 5-1. Back to the plate with one down in the fifth, he singled to right off of a left-hander and was lifted for a pinch-runner, bringing his successful first game back to a close.
Defensively, the ball seemed to find him in the first inning quite a bit as the second batter of the game doubled on a pop up that would have been caught by Brantley instead of deflected by Yandy Diaz at third had the veteran left fielder been in action more. The next two balls in play each came his way as a single drove in a run before he got a fly out for his first putout of the spring. One more playable ball came his way in the air in the fifth and he made the play.
“I am excited. He’s worked so hard,” shared Francona after Brantley’s performance on Monday. “I know that playing in a game isn’t the end of the road. I’m excited for him. I’m excited potentially for us.
“He’s come an awful long way. Everyone around him has kind of been raving about how he looks. He feels good so, heck yeah we’re excited.”
With a day off on Tuesday, Brantley had an easy opportunity to get rest between appearances. With no setbacks, he was back in the lineup on Wednesday in left field against the Rockies, hitting second behind another player long absent from the Indians lineup, Carlos Santana, who was just returning from his stint in the World Baseball Classic playing for his native Dominican Republic. After flying out to left in the first and fourth innings, he sent a 2-0 pitch in the top of the sixth inning into right field for a single and was lifted for a pinch-runner in Almonte.
The Indians will continue to take things one day at a time with Brantley with the focus more on the long season ahead and doing everything that they can to ensure that he is with the team for the final days of the season. Getting him back by Opening Day is not the target, but it would certainly do wonders to build the confidence of Brantley after struggling so mightily with his setbacks last season. If the Indians can get anything resembling the career .292 hitter back in their lineup for the majority of the season, he becomes a significant addition to a club that was able to do so much without him just five months ago.
He will continue that path back to the Show on Thursday afternoon, when he is expected to appear in game action on consecutive days for the first time this spring.
Photo: Jake Roth/USA TODAY Sports