There was not an opportunity for Ryan Braun to look around before the Brewers' season ended with a 3-0 loss to the Dodgers on Thursday and ponder the possibility that this could be the last day he walked into a Major League stadium as an active player. With the Brewers facing elimination in Game 2 of the National League Wild Card Series against the Dodgers and Braun out of the starting lineup because of a core muscle injury that was much more serious than suggested the night before, the longest-tenured Brewers player was holding onto hope that his team’s season would last long enough for Braun to contribute again.
“It's incredibly disappointing, incredibly frustrating,” Braun said. “You know, those words are understatements. Just disappointing for our team. Obviously, we came into the series a little bit undermanned; two of our best pitchers are out in Corbin [Burnes] and Devin [Williams], and obviously it's really disappointing to not be at full strength myself to be able to help give us the best chance to win today.”
Braun exited the Brewers’ Game 1 loss after two at-bats with what was described on the broadcast as mid-back discomfort. A day later, Braun elaborated, saying it was actually a left oblique strain suffered Sunday on a pair of defensive plays in St. Louis, starting with a Dexter Fowler fly ball that forced Braun to reach and twist in such a way that it disturbed that area.
Three days later, he started Game 1 against the Dodgers in right field despite being “significantly compromised” and playing in what Braun described as “extreme pain.” He was tested again in the second inning, when Braun made a running catch of Will Smith’s fly ball and crashed into the wall. After exiting the game, Braun was examined by a Dodgers team doctor.
“It wasn’t great,” Braun said.
The decision about whether he could start Game 2 wasn’t close, Braun and Brewers manager Craig Counsell indicated. After the game, Counsell said Braun never got loose enough to even consider a pinch-hit appearance.
“With where it's at, and how it's feeling, I don't think that me being in there from the start would have given us the best chance to win today,” Braun said.
“He’s down today, and there’s a little frustration,” Brewers center fielder Avisaíl García said.
That frustration was magnified by the possibility that this is how Braun’s 14-year Major League career comes to an end. At 36, he is in the final guaranteed year of his contract with the Brewers, and his $15 million option for 2021 is all but certain to be declined. The Brewers and Braun could always work out a new deal to bring him back, but Braun has said he will talk to his family first and decide whether he wants to keep attempting to navigate the Major League season with a bad back.
“Of course I’m aware of it,” he said. “I think that any sentimental feelings about where I’m at personally in my career take a back seat to where we’re at as a team. We’re still in a unique position. We’re still in a postseason series and in a place where we just have to win two games to advance to the next round against the best team in baseball.”
Once that possibility was over, Christian Yelich wondered if that was the end.
“Who knows if this was the last one? He hasn’t officially said he’s done, and that’s for him and his family to decide,” Yelich said. “And if he is done, he can hang his hat on having a great career. As a kid, you dream of playing in the big leagues and having the kind of career that he had. I think a very small percentage of people get to experience that -- even if you’re able to play in the big leagues. It’s really hard to stay around for 14-15 years, do it all with one organization. So if it is the end for him, hat’s off. He’s had an unbelievable career, and he should be extremely proud of it. We’ll miss him around here.”
Healy gets the start
In Braun’s place was Ryon Healy, a surprise cleanup hitter in a postseason elimination game in the sense that he had barely seen the field for the Brewers in 2020. Healy bounced between the big leagues and the Brewers' alternate training site, and he hadn’t started a game in the Majors since Aug. 5.
His lone hit in seven regular-season at-bats in 2020 left Healy’s bat at 60.6 mph and had a hit probability of 16 percent, according to Statcast. But it slipped under the glove of White Sox closer Alex Colomé and bounced past the mound for an infield single that started a little rally. The Brewers put the winning run in scoring position before Ben Gamel grounded out to end the game.
Did he ever envision a starting assignment like Thursday’s?
“Without a doubt,” he joked. “This has been my plan all along. I don’t know what took you guys so long to figure it out.”
Was he ready?
“The most ready I’ve ever been,” he said.
Of course, it was his first career postseason appearance.
“This is where we’re at,” Counsell said. “We’ve had injuries. We’ve been doing things to keep these guys ready and he’ll have to rely on that. He has not had a ton of at-bats, obviously, but he has been playing baseball every day and working at his craft. He’s a professional, so he’s ready for it. There’s a lot of circumstances that aren’t ideal that we have to overcome this year. This is another one of them. That’s how Ryon sees it; that’s how I see it. He’s ready for the challenge of that.”
Is it any surprise that Hollywood has the best special effects? García said the crowd noise coming from Dodger Stadium’s speaker tower was the best he’d heard all season, adding to the playoff atmosphere and helping García forget that the stands were empty.
“I heard the fans they have, it’s like almost the same,” García said. “It’s unbelievable. It’s the first time it felt like a real game. I like it.”