CLEVELAND -- Rather than heading home to Texas two winters ago, Indians pitcher Josh Tomlin and his family remained in Cleveland for most of the offseason. One of the driving factors behind that decision was that Michael Brantley was staying back to focus on his rehab from a second right shoulder surgery.
Tomlin knew all too well the mental anguish of rehabbing an injury in solitude. He understood the thoughts that start to infiltrate a player's mind, causing confidence to erode when the finish line is far from view. Tomlin heard Brantley talk about spending his post-playing days at home in Port St. Lucie, Fla., where the outfielder could spend his down time fishing and playing with his kids.
Tomlin knew Brantley needed a close friend nearby to help swat such thoughts away.
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"You need someone there pushing you," Tomlin said. "You need someone there telling you, 'Hey, you're full of crap. You're going to play. You're going to play again. You're one of the best players in the league. Keep fighting. Keep going forward.'"
Now, the only part of Brantley's future that is in doubt is which uniform he will don next year. Following three seasons hindered by health setbacks, Cleveland's veteran left fielder turned in a remarkable comeback campaign in 2018. Brantley's swing was as smooth as ever, and his presence in the lineup's No. 2 spot gave the Indians' offense a steady hand between Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez.
That is where Brantley batted on Monday, when the Indians were eliminated in Game 3 of the American League Division Series with an 11-3 loss to the Astros, during which Brantley hit a sacrifice fly.
The early exit hastens the questions surrounding Brantley, who will be eligible for free agency after parts of 10 seasons in the big leagues with the Tribe.
Given his comeback, given his inability to impact the past two postseason runs and given his uncertain future, Brantley has been savoring as much as possible this year.
"Every day," Brantley said. "When you go through basically almost a two-year rehab, you don't always know that you're going to come back. Every day that I'm there to be with my teammates, that I'm healthy enough to be in that lineup, where I can joke around and know that I'm going out to left field to play with these guys, I'm very appreciative. I don't take it for granted."
In 143 games this season, Brantley hit .309 with 17 home runs, 36 doubles, 76 RBIs, 89 runs and an .832 OPS for the Indians. He was not the AL Most Valuable Player Award candidate that he was in 2014, but Brantley returned to his status as one of the elite contact-oriented hitters in the game. Brantley led qualified MLB hitters in contact rate (90.9 percent) and swinging-strike rate (4.0 percent), while ranking second in strikeout rate (9.5 percent).
It took countless hours of work behind the scenes for Brantley to become that type of player again.
Late in the 2015 season, an ill-fated dive on the road in Minnesota caused the initial injury to Brantley's right shoulder. He had surgery, but complications limited him to just 11 games in '16. When the Indians clinched the first of three straight AL Central crowns in Detroit that September, Brantley leaned against a wall outside the visitors' clubhouse at Comerica Park, observing the champagne celebration from afar.
Throughout the run to the World Series that October, Brantley stayed with the team, offering hitting advice or any other insight he could for his teammates. If he could not swing a bat, Brantley wanted to find some other way to help his club.
"I really looked at myself as a coach," Brantley said. "I was talking to guys about at-bats. I was talking to them about their approach with certain pitchers. If anyone had a question of me, I made sure I was in the dugout cheering them on and made sure they knew I was there. I accepted the role, even though I didn't want to."
Brantley returned by the start of the 2017 season and made the AL All-Star team, but then a severe right ankle injury that he sustained in August hobbled him for the remainder of the year. The left fielder made the ALDS roster against the Yankees, but he was playing hurt, and following New York's victory to clinch the series, Brantley exited Progressive Field in a walking boot.
"He's a dying breed," Tomlin said.
Brantley had no such setbacks this season. When the Indians clinched their latest division crown, the outfielder was in the thick of the party in the home clubhouse. All those monotonous hours in the training room or batting cage -- where Brantley would swing one-handed if that was all he could handle -- had paid off.
"On a personal level, I'm just so happy for him, that he can be a part of this," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "I saw what he went through. When everybody's getting announced during the World Series and all the excitement, he was back there [in the training room]. He never missed a day."
"You never know when it's going to be your last game or what could happen," Brantley said. "Every day that I came in this season, to be with that group that worked so hard day in and day out by my side, it's an honor."