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Braun trying to put past in rearview mirror

Coming off 65-game suspension, Brewers slugger focusing on task at hand

PHOENIX -- Ryan Braun said it was just another spring at-bat, a brick in the wall. Nothing more. If you're inclined to see something larger, to make it some symbolic turning of the page, you'll have to go it alone.

"Whether it's been four months or six months, it always feels like it's been awhile," Braun said. "It'll take a little while before I feel like I'm comfortable again at the plate."

Still, for an opening game in Spring Training, it was a sweet moment for a player who will have his every breath scrutinized this season after serving a 65-game suspension for performance-enhancing substances at the end of last season.

For the first time since July 21, Braun stepped into the batter's box as the Brewers and Athletics opened the exhibition season against one another on Thursday afternoon. It was a home game for the A's, but there were fans of both teams scattered about.

Braun predictably received a nice mixture of boos and cheers, with a few insults tossed in. Nothing new there.

"I was encouraged by the amount of support I got," Braun said later. "I appreciate that. But again, my only focus is on preparing for the season. I try not to think about or concern myself with things that are out of my control."

Now a word about those taunts. Players deal with 'em all the time. High-profile players. Regular guys, too.

"When you've played a lot of games at Wrigley Field, you're not going to hear many things you haven't heard before," teammate Rickie Weeks said.

Yeah, there's that.

"I've dealt with it in the past," Braun said. "I've never gone to play in St. Louis or Chicago or Philadelphia and had them root for me. I've never experienced them not yelling at me."

There is a difference this time.

"They have some new things to yell at me about," Braun said, "but I think it's the same thing when good players come to our ballpark. I've never heard our fans cheer for Albert Pujols or Joey Votto or any of those guys. I don't worry about those things."

Braun responded to the crowd the only way he can respond, the only way he can begin to get on with the remainder of his career and start to put the other stuff in his rearview mirror.

That's what Braun did in the first inning when he turned a pitch from A's starter Tommy Milone into a towering home run to left. That quickly, Braun gave them something else to talk about.

"It's still the first day of Spring Training," Braun said. "I'd rather hit the ball hard than strike out. Results in Spring Training are basically irrelevant. It's trying to see pitches and get comfortable in the batter's box and get used to playing again."

Braun knows there'll be people who wonder how good a player he can still be if he's clean. Braun said he has zero doubt he can still produce at a high level. And what could make it even more fun is that the Brewers have a chance to contend, and if Braun stays healthy and is productive and the club catches a break or two, this could be a fun baseball summer in Milwaukee.

"This time of the year, there's always a lot of optimism, a lot of hope," Braun said. "I think adding [free-agent right-hander] Matt Garza is something that made a huge difference for our psyche as a team. It shows that our front office and ownership group believes this group of guys has an opportunity to win. We have more depth as a pitching staff than I can remember us having."

One of Braun's trademarks has been his relentless preparation, his daily regimen of stretching, lifting, batting practice, etc. That work ethic, Braun said, is the thing he's leaning on now, the thing he's concentrating on. In the end, nothing else matters.

"I focus on the things I need to do to prepare myself for the season, to prepare myself physically, mentally and emotionally hopefully for playing one hundred eighty something games," said Braun.

If there was a sense of relief that he finally could get back on the field and do the thing he does better than almost anyone, Braun would not say so. He simply continued to do the things he has done every spring.

"I try not to get caught up in the emotional aspect of any of that stuff," Braun said. "I try to focus on the task at hand. If I focus on the bigger picture and get overly introspective or emotional about the situation, I get myself in trouble. I take away from what I'm ultimately trying to accomplish which is preparing myself for the season. Certainly it's a little different than it's been before. But aside from that, I've tried not to have peripheral vision. My goal is to focus on preparing myself for the season. That's being the best player I can be for our team."

Braun said it hasn't been a normal spring because he was somewhat anxious about getting back to work and answering the inevitable questions and all that. In addition, the Brewers have shifted him from left field to right.

After playing three innings there Thursday afternoon and grounding out to shortstop in his only other at-bat, Braun remembered that he'd started the 2009 All-Star Game in right field. So it's not like he's in completely new territory.

"I felt myself a little more anxious on defense than I normally am," Braun said. "Just trying to make sure I'm in the right position, where the center fielder is at. I get a lot of work done during batting practice. I can get live balls off the bat, which is just as beneficial to me as games except for backing up plays."

Braun knows it's a process that'll play out in the months ahead, that nothing will be settled in one day or even one month. He's committed to staying the course to prepare for another season. Braun's teammates say they'll support him however they can.

"If I can help, I will," center fielder Carlos Gomez said. "He's going to have support from his teammates. He's a strong man. He's got a strong mind to deal with it."

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
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