Smooth performance: Vintage Brantley back

Indians outfielder breaks out with four hits, three RBIs and clutch running catch to help secure sweep

May 6th, 2016

CLEVELAND -- The Indians have been waiting for Michael Brantley to look like himself again. When Cleveland's left fielder was activated from the disabled list, the team knew it might take time for him to find his timing and display the familiar smooth swing that has turned him into a star.

Brantley returned more than a week ago, but on Thursday night he was back. In a 9-4 victory over the Tigers that completed a three-game series sweep, the outfielder drove in three runs, churned out four hits and made an impressive running, tumbling catch at a critical point in the game.

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"That looked a lot like him tonight," Indians manager Terry Francona said.

Both Brantley and the Indians expected that it might take the outfielder some time to regain his rhythm in the batter's box. He was activated from the 15-day disabled list on April 25, completing a near six-month comeback from offseason surgery on his right shoulder. Given Brantley's history of consistency, the Indians maintained faith that it would be a matter of time before things began to click again for him.

Brantley's performance against Detroit was a portrait of him at his best.

Within a four-run first inning, Brantley pulled a 96-mph fastball from Tigers righty Michael Fulmer into right field for an RBI single. In the third inning, Brantley drove a pitch up the middle for another base hit. In the fifth, the outfielder slashed an offering the opposite way for his third single of the night. Finally, Brantley ripped an eighth-inning cutter from Blaine Hardy down the right-field line for a two-run double.

"When he's himself, that's why he hits .300, because he uses the entire field," Francona said. "Even when guys make pitches, he still has the ability. You saw the one. He hit the two-strike pitch to left field, and then you try to come in, and he can pull it down the line."

Heading into Thursday's game, Brantley had gone 4-for-24 in his first seven games back with the Tribe. His 4-for-5 showing against Detroit lifted his season average from .167 to .276. The left-handed-hitting outfielder saw 23 pitches on the night and swung nine times. Brantley did not miss on any of those cuts -- an encouraging sign. Across the 2013-15 seasons, Brantley led the Majors with a 91.7-percent contact rate.

"There was no doubt that he was going to get there," said Indians starter Trevor Bauer, referring to Brantley returning to form. "No one in here ever questioned that. ... No one in here was worried about it, and it helps our lineup a ton when he does swing how he does."

Brantley also helped in a big way on defense on Thursday night.

In the sixth inning, Bauer ran into some potential trouble when he allowed a two-out double to Justin Upton. That set the stage for the hot-hitting Nick Castellanos, who belted a three-run homer in his previous at-bat to trim the Tribe's lead to 4-3 in the fourth inning. With Cleveland now clinging to a 5-3 advantage, reliever Jeff Manship took over and Castellanos yanked a 1-1 pitch to deep left field.

"I honestly thought it was a home run right when he hit it," Manship said. "I don't know if you can go back and watch the tape. I pretty much put my head down right away. I hung a slider right there."

Brantley, who injured his right shoulder on a diving catch attempt last September, tracked down the deep fly on a dead sprint. At the last moment, the outfielder extended his right arm, snared the baseball from the air and then fell to the ground as he completed an inning-ending catch.

"It was a difficult play, but he top-spun it, which gave me the only chance I had at making that play," Brantley said. "If he backspins that ball at all, it's going to hit off the wall and I won't get there. He top-spun it, and I was able to get a good jump on it and get there."

It was just one more sign that Brantley is feeling more like himself again.

"Of course it's going to take some time," Brantley said. "I wasn't expecting to come in and play guns blazing or anything like that. ... It's going to take a little bit of time, but we're stepping in the right direction."