King of Bouncing Back, Brantley Again Settling Right Into All-Star Form

Michael Brantley‘s recent story is one rarely seen in sports. That is mostly because many athletes may have already quit before working back from two serious injuries to get back to an All-Star level.

A 2014 All-Star and MVP candidate, Brantley has been with the Tribe organization since a 2008 trade-deadline deal sent former Tribe ace C.C. Sabathia to the Milwaukee Brewers in a deal that was initially met with great ire among Cleveland fans. The left fielder made his Indians debut in 2009 and was a part of some pretty lousy teams from 2009-2012. He finally got his first taste of postseason action in the one-game Wild Card loss to Tampa in 2013. Brantley blossomed into one of the team’s brightest stars in 2014 and 2015, only to see the second of those seasons end a little early with a shoulder injury suffered while diving to make a play on fly ball during the campaign’s final weekend.

The shoulder injury proved to be a serious one, requiring three surgeries. That alone may have made some players decide to hang up the cleats. Not Brantley. He missed all but eleven games of the 2016 season, perhaps pushing a little too hard to rejoin his teammates in what was turning into a splendid season for the club. Worse yet, he missed the entire run of the playoffs, which ended in an unforgettable Game 7 of the World Series, one win shy of the franchise’s first championship since 1948. He may have been the difference in putting the Tribe over the Cubs that year. Many athletes may have crumbled in that position and thrown in the towel in frustration. All the work to turn around a once-bad team and then not able to take the field once the glory arrives, instead drove Brantley even harder to come back.

The lefty, known as Dr. Smooth for his fine hitting stroke, worked hard on getting his shoulder ready before the 2017 season. He beat the odds and was ready to go for the 2017 season opener when some wondered if he would ever play again. Instead, he was playing. Surely, however, there would be rust. After nearly a full season off the field, simply getting 75 percent of the All-Star Brantley once was would be a win for the Tribe. Everyone learned last year to not underestimate the player that he has become over the years.

Instead of rust, Brantley proved to perhaps be made of solid steel. He had three hits in his first two games and hit .308 in the season’s first month. Other than a minor ankle injury in June, Brantley did the unthinkable and turned in an All-Star worthy season in the first half. He found himself in his second Midsummer Classic, hitting .304 with five home runs, 37 RBI, and eight stolen bases. He was selected to be in the game, and not just because the Indians needed an All-Star representative. He was joined on the American League roster by four teammates, including third base starter Jose Ramirez.

The shoulder injury was truly behind Brantley and he was back to his All-Star way. He could focus his energies on the second half of the 2017 season and trying to help his team get back to the World Series. Or so he thought. That minor ankle tweak, that cost him a mere 13 games in June, popped back up in August. This time it was not a small thing. He played on August 8 and was not back on the field (and then as a designated hitter) until September 30, the Tribe’s second-to-last game of the regular season. All that work to come back from the shoulder issues and a sprained right ankle wrecked the second half of what was turning into a brilliant year.

Some wondered if Brantley would or should be a part of Cleveland’s ALDS roster. Manager Terry Francona, a player’s coach, included him, almost as a reward for all his hard work and a lifetime achievement-type thing. He was just going to be a pinch-hitter. That was until cleanup hitter Edwin Encarnacion succumbed to his own ankle injury in Game 2 and missed Games 3 and 4. Brantley was pressed into service and was nowhere near his normal self on limited batting time to that point. He had one hit in 11 at bats, serving as the DH.

Rather than be upset over again missing the stretch drive of a playoff season, Brantley spent last offseason again working tirelessly to recover from surgery. Unsure if he would be ready to take the field by this year’s Opening Day, Brantley surprised some by playing in a few spring training games. He opened the year on the DL, but was back by the Indians’ Home Opener, the seventh game of the season. Much like last year, he has shown zero rust from only playing 90 games last year and missing almost all of the final two months.

Dr. Smooth came out of the gates strong, collecting the game-winning RBI in the Progressive Field opener this year. He again seems to have not missed a beat. He entered the weekend as the Tribe’s leading hitter, batting at an astounding .348 clip with three home runs and 16 RBI. He also has eight doubles, a triple, and a stolen base, showing no ill-effects of the ankle injury. On Wednesday night, he hit his first grand slam of his 10-season career.

The odds that a two-time All-Star and one-time MVP finalist would not have hit his first slam until his 10th big league season are pretty long. Longer yet are the odds a player can not only come back from multiple surgeries on multiple injuries in two years and not only play, but play at an elite level. That is exactly what Brantley has done and is doing. He refused to quit when his shoulder cost him most of 2016 and came back an All-Star. He refused to quit when his ankle cost him much of the last year’s second half and has come back to be a first-month All-Star and MVP candidate this season.

The next step, now, is to get through a full year. Brantley is authoring a fascinating story of a guy who has faced some long odds to recover and remain a great player. The story can only get better if he can be a key component to another playoff run and hopeful postseason showing that finally ends baseball’s longest championship drought.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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