Braun has been en­er­gized by an­other play­off run

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - Front Page - Tom Hau­dri­court More Brew­ers cov­er­age in Sports and at json­line.com

As Mil­wau­kee Brew­ers man­ager Craig Coun­sell has mon­i­tored his play­ers, on and off the field, dur­ing the team’s im­prob­a­ble surge to the Na­tional League Cen­tral crown and sweep of Colorado in the NL Di­vi­sion Se­ries, one, in par­tic­u­lar, stood out as hav­ing the time of his life.

“If you ask me, ‘Who is the player en­joy­ing this the most,’ I’d say Ryan Braun is the guy,” Coun­sell said. “What I see, as much as any player we have, Ryan is en­joy­ing this. And that makes me happy.

“There’s no ques­tion this has en­er­gized him and brought some joy to play­ing the game again. It’s good to see.”

Braun, who will be 35 next month, in­deed has had more bounce in his step in re­cent weeks. Af­ter a sea­son in which var­i­ous ail­ments cur­tailed his play and pro­duc­tion, in­clud­ing on­go­ing lower back is­sues, he has felt lit­tle or no pain dur­ing the Brew­ers’ re­mark­able 11-game win­ning streak en­ter­ing the NL

Cham­pi­onship Se­ries against Los An­ge­les, which be­gins Fri­day night at Miller Park.

“I feel like I’m go­ing on 25, not 35, right now,” Braun pro­claimed.

Braun is the only re­main­ing player from the Brew­ers’ last play­off team in 2011, a sea­son that ended with an NLCS loss to the St. Louis Car­di­nals. Af­ter a late­sea­son col­lapse three years later, fol­lowed by a col­lec­tive prat­fall at the out­set of 2015, the de­ci­sion was made to strip down the team and re­build, with no way of know­ing when the team might play Oc­to­ber base­ball again.

Be­cause the Brew­ers ex­ceeded ex­pec­ta­tions, both in­ter­nally and ex­ter­nally, Braun feels as if he’s play­ing with house money. And he read­ily ad­mits how much it has meant to him.

Asked where his ex­cite­ment level stood en­ter­ing the NLCS, Braun quickly re­sponded, “It’s a 10. I can’t wait.

“I think all of us here feel the same way. We’re all just hav­ing so much fun right now. It’s such a spe­cial op­por­tu­nity. I’ve played in this league a long time. I know this doesn’t come around ev­ery year. I’m just en­joy­ing it and hav­ing so much fun.”

Though Braun sur­vived the strip-down of the ros­ter, there was a time a cou­ple of years ago that he, too, thought he’d be pack­ing his bags. The Brew­ers were in­volved in deep trade ne­go­ti­a­tions with Los An­ge­les, his home­town team, and thought a deal was in place, only to see the Dodgers back off at the last minute.

Braun, who has two years re­main­ing on his con­tract for a to­tal of $34 mil­lion and a mu­tual op­tion for 2021 at $15 mil­lion, since has ob­tained full veto rights over any trade and likely will fin­ish his ca­reer with the only team for which he has played.

“I said at the time that it would be more mean­ing­ful to win here than to go any­where else and win mul­ti­ple cham­pi­onships, and I meant it,” said Braun, whose Brew­ers ca­reer be­gan with a rookie of the year sea­son in 2007. “I’ve been here for so long, been through so much. I have a spe­cial con­nec­tion to the city, to the fans, to the or­ga­ni­za­tion.

“I hon­estly didn’t think we’d be back in this po­si­tion as quickly as we are. I don’t think any­body else did, ei­ther. That’s a tribute to ev­ery­body here that we made it as quickly as we have. I’m re­ally em­brac­ing the op­por­tu­nity.”

Braun’s last play­off ex­pe­ri­ence, dur­ing his MVP sea­son of 2011, was marred in a ma­jor way when it was re­vealed later he failed a Ma­jor League Base­ball-man­dated drug test, which was pos­i­tive for syn­thetic testos­terone. He ap­pealed the re­sult and won in ar­bi­tra­tion, but later ac­cepted a 65-game sus­pen­sion at the end of the 2013 sea­son af­ter ev­i­dence against him was un­cov­ered in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the scan­dal-plagued Bio­gen­e­sis clinic in Florida.

By then, Braun had de­vel­oped a chronic nerve is­sue in his right thumb that made it all but im­pos­si­ble to grip the bat. He has had pe­ri­odic cryother­apy treat­ments since to ad­dress flare-ups, and also un­der­went surgery fol­low­ing the 2015 sea­son to re­pair a her­ni­ated disc in his lower back.

In the three years since, re­main­ing healthy enough to stay on the field has been the big­gest chal­lenge for Braun. He was lim­ited to 135 games in 2016, 104 in 2017 and 125 this sea­son. Coun­sell has been forced to give Braun sched­uled off-days to re­cu­per­ate from var­i­ous ail­ments, with stints on the dis­abled list also cur­tail­ing his play.

De­spite those med­i­cal chal­lenges, Braun man­aged to pro­duce at near-nor­mal lev­els un­til this sea­son, when hit­ting into hard luck be­came a ma­jor ob­sta­cle. De­spite com­pil­ing hard-hit and line-drive rates as good or bet­ter as any sea­son of his ca­reer, he com­piled a .782 OPS (on-base per­cent­age plus slug­ging per­cent­age) — low­est since 2014 — with 20 home runs and 64 runs bat­ted in.

When the Brew­ers needed Braun most, how­ever, he perked up con­sid­er­ably at the plate. Over the last 10 games of the sea­son, he bat­ted .344 with five home runs and 12 RBI, join­ing the in­sanely hot Chris­tian Yelich to lead the team to the di­vi­sion crown, achieved with a 3-1 vic­tory over the Cubs at Wrigley Field in an ex­tra game No. 163.

“Ryan is now com­ing up on 35 and I think he’s still in the mid­dle of every­thing,” Coun­sell said. “He is not the MVP can­di­date he was those (ear­lier) years but he’s still in the mid­dle of every­thing. There’s no bet­ter way to say it than that and no big­ger state­ment, be­cause that’s seven years ago.

“To still be in the mid­dle of it seven years later, that’s not easy to do. I have great re­spect for that.”

The Brew­ers’ 11-game win­ning streak be­gan with a 13-6 vic­tory in Pitts­burgh on Sept. 22. The next day, at the out­set of a huge se­ries in St. Louis, Braun strut­ted into the vis­it­ing club­house at Busch Sta­dium and an­nounced to team­mates that he felt healthy again and ready to “dom­i­nate” the op­po­si­tion. If you know Braun, you know he never lacks for con­fi­dence.

With Braun slug­ging three homers and driv­ing in five runs, the Brew­ers swept that se­ries to clinch a post­sea­son berth for the first time in seven years, and there’s been no stop­ping them since.

“Re­ally that last day in Pitts­burgh, the first day in St. Louis, I woke up and felt re­ally good,” Braun said. “I felt ex­cited. I felt en­er­gized. I just re­ally looked for­ward to play­ing base­ball. When you have that added adren­a­line be­cause of the im­por­tance and in­ten­sity of the games, it helps the body feel bet­ter.

“I’d say, knock on wood, right now I feel bet­ter than I have all year. It’s the best bat­ting prac­tice I’ve taken all year. I feel re­ally good and feel for­tu­nate I’m in this po­si­tion health-wise. I never take it for granted. I do think for ev­ery­body, when you have the adren­a­line added this time of the year, it helps you feel bet­ter phys­i­cally.

“We’ve gone on an 11-game win­ning streak. We ap­proached ev­ery one of those games with the un­der­stand­ing it was a must win. We ap­proached that third game in Colorado the same way. It was im­por­tant for us to come out, put the pres­sure on them, bring the fight to them, score early.

“Ev­ery­body here has han­dled it so well, es­pe­cially all of our re­liev­ers who have ba­si­cally zero post­sea­son ex­pe­ri­ence. Those guys con­tinue to throw the ball so well. There are a lot of guys con­tribut­ing of­fen­sively. We’re re­ally do­ing a lot of things well. It has been im­pres­sive and it’s en­cour­ag­ing mov­ing for­ward.”

Dur­ing the year, the Brew­ers added vet­er­ans with post­sea­son ex­pe­ri­ence, such as Lorenzo Cain, Mike Mous­takas and Cur­tis Gran­der­son. But, as the sole sur­vivor of the last Mil­wau­kee play­off team, Braun has felt added re­spon­si­bil­ity to ex­er­cise his lead­er­ship skills and do every­thing he can to help younger team­mates ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the Oc­to­ber caul­dron for the first time.

Tak­ing his se­nior-ser­vice role se­ri­ously, Braun de­liv­ered club­house speeches at the out­set of each of the team’s three club­house cel­e­bra­tions. His or­a­tory skills reached a new height in Colorado af­ter the Brew­ers swept the NLDS, telling team­mates there were two more cel­e­bra­tions to go and ex­hort­ing them to “keep do­ing the same (stuff)!”

“That was just spur of the mo­ment,” Braun said. “The first speech I gave af­ter a big mo­ment was af­ter the St. Louis win. I think ev­ery­body’s wait­ing for me to talk when we have those cel­e­bra­tions. Ob­vi­ously, it’s some­thing I en­joy. It’s just cool to see ev­ery­body re­spond, to see all the boys fired up.

“I know I’m not go­ing to play this game for­ever. Ob­vi­ously, you want a chance to get back in this po­si­tion. For all play­ers, this is when base­ball is most en­joy­able. I love the emo­tion and in­ten­sity of these games.

“I didn’t know if we’d have the op­por­tu­nity to get back here at all, frankly, dur­ing my ten­ure as a Brewer. So, it does make it that more mean­ing­ful and spe­cial for me, and I think for ev­ery­body else that’s been here for a while as well.”

MATT SLOCUM / ASSOCIATED PRESS

Brew­ers man­ager Craig Coun­sell and Ryan Braun watch bat­ting prac­ticeWed­nes­day in prepa­ra­tion forGame 1 of the Na­tional League Cham­pi­onshipSe­ries.

JEFF CURRY-USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Brew­ers left­fielder Ryan Braun leaps to cel­e­brate with third base coach Ed Sedar af­ter hit­ting a solo home run against the Car­di­nals on Sept. 24.

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