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Making it count: Braun Mr. Clutch to start '18

Brewers star batting just .176, but has hit 2 game-winning homers in first 5 games
MLB.com @AdamMcCalvy

MILWAUKEE -- What a weird Opening Week for Ryan Braun. He was 2-for-16 to start the regular season as he stepped to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning Tuesday, a .125 batting average staring down at him from the scoreboard at Miller Park. An inning earlier, frustration bubbled up after a questionable called third strike.

And yet, Braun might be his team's early-season MVP.

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MILWAUKEE -- What a weird Opening Week for Ryan Braun. He was 2-for-16 to start the regular season as he stepped to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning Tuesday, a .125 batting average staring down at him from the scoreboard at Miller Park. An inning earlier, frustration bubbled up after a questionable called third strike.

And yet, Braun might be his team's early-season MVP.

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"We told him to hit homers at the end of the game," quipped Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell. "It's a new strategy we've got this year."

The strategy is working quite well. Four days after Braun's go-ahead, three-run home run with two outs in the ninth inning capped a five-run rally in a victory at San Diego, he came through again with two outs in the ninth on Tuesday night. Christian Yelich had barely reached the dugout after his tying solo home run when Braun lined the next pitch for another homer and a 5-4 win over the Cardinals.

Video: Must C Clutch: Yelich, Braun go back-to-back for win

It was Braun's fourth career walk-off home run, but his first since Sept. 13, 2011, against the Rockies.

Just like that, his batting average bumped up to .176.

"Interesting is a good word for it," said Braun, after a reporter suggested that adjective. "Very few hits. Timing and rhythm aren't quite there. I've hit a couple balls hard for outs, and I've also had a few bad at-bats.

"But fortunately the few hits I have gotten I've found a way to make count. I hope that I end the year hitting higher than .150, but I also hope that I continue to come through in big moments like that."

The Brewers were 1-57 when trailing after eight innings last season, but they are 2-1 so far in 2018 thanks to Braun.

Video: Must C Comeback: Braun homers to cap five-run 9th

"He'll be fine," said Yelich. "He's been such a great player throughout his career that it's really just four games, if you think about it. He's gotten some huge hits for us. He's basically won us two ballgames all by himself."

Braun has had his share of Miller Park moments over the years, but Tuesday's came with his career at something of a crossroads. When the Brewers acquired Yelich and Lorenzo Cain on Jan. 25, they had already decided to try Braun at first base in Spring Training, hoping to play him there against left-handers as a platoon partner to Eric Thames in addition to his regular work in left field. Braun made his first two career starts at first base in the first two games of the season, including Friday's dramatic comeback against the Padres.

Video: STL@MIL: Counsell on walk-off 5-4 victory

Cain and Yelich are under contract for the next five years. Right-fielder Domingo Santana, 25 and coming off a 30-homer season in 2017, has four years before he reaches free agency. Braun has three guaranteed years left on his contract.

And as the past few ninth innings have indicated, he also may still have something in the tank.

"For me, as a player and a competitor, those are the moments that we live for," Braun said. "You hope to be given an opportunity to do something to impact the game there in the ninth inning. I was lucky I didn't get thrown out in the eighth -- I wasn't too excited about that strike call, so luckily I didn't say too much and I was able to stay in the game and have an opportunity to come through."

Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy and like him on Facebook.

Milwaukee Brewers, Ryan Braun