CLEVELAND -- The RBI double in the first bounced out of the glove of Josh Reddick, who just about 24 hours earlier had made one of the great homer-robbing catches of this young season. The two-run single in the fifth was the product of a scorched-earth grounder aided by a
CLEVELAND -- The RBI double in the first bounced out of the glove of Josh Reddick, who just about 24 hours earlier had made one of the great homer-robbing catches of this young season. The two-run single in the fifth was the product of a scorched-earth grounder aided by a drawn-in infield. So the latest triumph in Michael Brantley's comeback campaign -- 2-for-4 with three RBIs in the Indians' 7-6 win over the Astros on Wednesday night at Progressive Field -- had a little luck attached, as Brantley himself would acknowledge.
"You gotta get those breaks," he said.
But who deserves the occasional break more than Brantley?
The guy they call Dr. Smooth is back from his wilderness year, crushing the questions of whether ("Will he make it back from two surgical procedures on his right shoulder?") and what ("Will he even remotely resemble his old pure-hitting self?"). Brantley is in the midst of a 10-game hitting streak in which he's had seven extra-base hits and driven in 10 runs, raising his season OPS to .945.
That's outstanding output for anybody, but astounding output for a guy whose career was at a crossroads.
"Getting him back in name is one thing," manager Terry Francona said. "But getting him back as the player he was, that's pretty impressive on his part."
From 2012-15, Brantley developed a deserved reputation as one of the best pure hitters in the sport (.303/.362/.447 slash line). His transcendent 2014 saw him finish second in the American League in hits (200), third in average (.327), fourth in OBP (.385) and fifth in Wins Above Replacement (7.0). Brantley finished third in the AL MVP Award voting.
But a dive in the outfield grass at Target Field one mid-September night in 2015 changed all that. At the time, there was no telling how significant the jammed shoulder Brantley sustained that night really was. He told the coaches he expected to play the next day. As it turns out, Brantley had labrum surgery in November and didn't play again until April 25 of last year. And in a 2016 full of stops, starts and setbacks, that was one of just 11 games logged before undergoing a second procedure to address biceps tendinitis in August.
"Watching from the sidelines," Brantley said, "was tough."
Brantley wore that on his face during the Tribe's amazing October run, but he did whatever he could to contribute behind the scenes. He gave his teammates words of encouragement or advice; they gave him company on those days that, had the season not been extended, would have found him alone in the Progressive Field workout room.
Brantley wound up spending all offseason here, trying to build up sustainable strength. The work ethic was never in doubt, but the outcome was. The lead shoulder is where a hitter generates his power. So even if Brantley's shoulder held up to the spring schedule, there was no telling if he'd generate consistent, quality contact.
Now we know. There was nothing to worry about there. Brantley's first-inning double off Reddick's glove was the sixth ball he's barreled this year, per the Statcast™ exit velocity and launch angle equation. That's the second-highest total on the team, behind Francisco Lindor (10). Brantley's ground-ball single past the diving, drawn-in Carlos Correa was the 14th ball he's put in play with an exit velocity of 100 mph or higher.
"I didn't think I was going to come back being a slap hitter," Brantley said with a smile.
Brantley's biggest appeal is and always has been his ability to hit to all fields, to shorten up when necessary, to adjust his approach to the situation at hand. You saw that when he grounded that single the other way with two runners in scoring position.
"He's got a really good idea of what he's doing," Francona said. "Runner on third with less than two outs, you very rarely see him pull off. He can shoot the ball the other way. They oftentimes pitch you backward because there's a runner in scoring position, but he's often on time because he's thinking the other way."
Brantley feels his mechanics and his timing are still works in progress. Undeniably, he's caught some BABIP-fueled breaks in the course of staging one of the game's early feel-good stories. But you make your own luck, and Brantley made his with a dedicated rehab that ensured his sweet swing could come back intact. The Indians were thrilled to return the name. Turns out, they've also returned the numbers.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.