Brantley homers in first Cactus League at-bat

Indians' All-Star left fielder coming back from ankle surgery

March 22nd, 2018

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- The welcoming cheers from Indians fans had barely subsided when showed that his swing is in working order. In his Cactus League debut on Wednesday night, the All-Star left fielder pulled the first strike he saw, sending the ball bouncing off the tin roof beyond Goodyear Ballpark's right-field seats.

As Brantley made his way around the bases amid a standing ovation, following his solo home run off Kansas City's in the second inning, it was easy to forget that he is battling the calendar in a bid to make the Tribe's Opening Day roster. For the third spring in a row, Brantley is returning from injury -- this time he is coming back from right ankle surgery -- and hopeful to leave Arizona for Cleveland's season opener on March 29 in Seattle.

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Brantley flashed a smile when asked if the one week remaining before Opening Day is enough time for him to be ready.

"We shall see," Brantley said. "I'm going to take it one day at a time, like I always say. I wake up tomorrow, I've to to do my agility work, I've got to do my tests, make sure I feel good and hopefully play again. One day at a time. All is positive right now. I'm just glad to be back."

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Brantley ended Wednesday night's 12-8 loss to the Royals with a 1-for-3 showing, which included a strikeout in his second trip to the plate and a deep flyout to left in his third. He manned left field for five innings, but was not tested much. Brantley gloved a couple of singles sent to the grass in front of him and camped under a high fly ball off 's bat to make a routine catch in the third inning.

Throughout this spring, Indians manager Terry Francona has been careful not to make any declarations about Brantley's status for the start of the regular season. That continued on Wednesday afternoon, when the manager again tiptoed around questions about his left fielder's availability a week from now.

"I want him to get better and get healthy," Francona said. "And I know just from watching him how hard he's trying, how hard he pushes. I just don't think it's productive for me to sit here and [say he'll be ready for Opening Day]. He's doing everything he can do get ready. Whether it's Opening Day or a week later, I'll be happy that he's healthy. And, just looking at him, he does look pretty healthy. It's kind of fun to watch."

Wednesday marked Brantley's first Cactus League appearance this spring, but he has collected a handful of innings and at-bats in Minor League and simulated game settings. Brantley played the outfield in a Class A game on Monday, and he went 2-for-2 with a home run in an Minor League intrasquad contest on Saturday. Hitting has not been an issue for Brantley, who has been unrestricted in the cage and during batting practice throughout the spring.

That is a big difference from the previous two springs, during which Brantley was rehabbing right shoulder and biceps injuries.

"It's a huge advantage," said Brantley, who hit .299 with nine homers, 20 doubles, 52 RBIs and an .801 OPS in 90 games last season. "Timing is everything when it comes to hitting. Being able to have the repetition, taking quality swings in the cage and hitting BP regularly, I'm ahead of where I was last year because of the shoulder. I was hitting pain-free when I got here. It was a big advantage for me."

The gradual aspect of Brantley's latest comeback was introducing running and agility work into his daily workouts. Brantley, who underwent surgery on his right ankle in October, was limited to jogging in a straight line at the outset of camp. Slowly, the Indians added in agility, sprinting, baserunning and outfield-specific work as Brantley met and cleared each hurdle. That process culminated in Wednesday's start in left field and in the lineup's No. 5 hole against the Royals.

When Brantley moved into the on-deck circle for the first time on Wednesday night, fans seated in the section directly behind him lifted their phones, capturing photos and videos of his return. Following his home run, and were among the first teammates to greet him with bear hugs in the dugout.

"It felt good," Brantley said. "Hard work pays off."