Cleveland bets on the immensely talented Michael Brantley, and his health may determine how far it goes.
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CLEVELAND – Michael Brantley is known as “Dr. Smooth,” and it is one of the most fitting names in baseball.
The Indians left fielder never seems to get rattled with his even-keeled personality.
He is also considered one of the most fundamentally sound players in the game and makes everything he does on the field look easy.
“I know the fans have a lot of fun with it, and that’s really cool,” Brantley said of the nickname, which was given to him by Cleveland Plain Dealer sports columnist Dennis Manoloff. “I just try to go out there every day and take care of business.
“I appreciate people saying I make it look it easy, but it’s not easy. It’s a difficult game to play and I put a lot of work into it. I never take it for granted, because you never know what can happen in this game.”
Brantley has learned that from experience.
In 2014, he was selected to his first All-Star Game and finished third in the American League MVP voting as he hit .327 with 20 home runs and 23 stolen bases.
Brantley followed the next season with a .310 batting average, an American League-leading 45 doubles, 15 home runs and 15 steals.
However, Brantley suffered a torn labrum in his right (nonthrowing) shoulder late in the 2015 season while attempting to make a diving catch. He was limited to 11 games the following season after having surgeries on his shoulder and right biceps.
Brantley bounced back to make the AL All-Star team last season. However, he sprained his right ankle for the second time in two months Aug. 8 while tracking a fly ball, wound up playing in a total of 90 games and had surgery to stabilize the ligaments in October after the Indians lost to the Yankees in an AL Division Series.
Yet Brantley did not pout or feel sorry for himself during all the downtime of the last two seasons.
“He did what comes naturally to him, and that’s be the best teammate he could possibly be,” Indians manager Terry Francona.
Players often say they do not feel like they are completely part of the team when they are on the disabled list. Brantley immersed himself in everything going on with the Indians even though he couldn’t play.
“I think it’s my personality,” Brantley said. “I love being around my teammates. I love talking to them. I love messing around with them and having fun with them. The more I’m around them, the better off I am.
“I stayed in the dugout the whole game to see if I could help in anyway, even if it was just to keep them motivated or keep them loose. I tried to do what I could to still be part of the team.”
Brantley developed a baseball player’s mind-set early in life. His father, Mickey Brantley, was an outfielder with the Mariners from 1986 to 1989 and had a three-year stint as the hitting coach with the Blue Jays from 2005 to 2007.
“It’s not easy when you’re not playing, but the one thing I learned early on about baseball is that you can’t get too high or too low,” Brantley said. “I have a great group of guys in the clubhouse that are here to support me and pick me up. I also have a good family that always supports me and picks me up.
“Times got a bit rough over the last two years, but my teammates and my family were always there, and I can’t thank them enough.”
Brantley, 30, was limited to three games during spring training this year while recovering from the ankle surgery and began the season on the disabled list.
However, after missing the season-opening six-game road trip, he returned for the home opener April 6 against the Royals and made an immediate impact.
Brantley’s two-run single capped a three-run first inning and proved to be the difference in a 3-2 victory. It made for an emotional day for Francona and Brantley’s teammates.
Through his first six games, Brantley was 6-for-21 (.286).
“He’s an easy guy to bet on,” Francona said. “I could give you pages and pages of why. He’s the heart and soul of our team. He does everything the way you’re supposed to.
“If people saw the way he works to get healthy, it would be hard to bet against him or to ever want to bet against him.”
The Indians did not bet against Brantley after last season, exercising the $11.5 million club option in his contract for 2018 despite him being limited to 101 games over the previous two seasons.
Not surprisingly, Brantley didn’t sweat the decision. He is Dr. Smooth, after all.
“It was up to them but, at the same time, this is where I wanted to be, where I wanted to continue my career,” Brantley said. “I’m very appreciative to have the chance to continue playing for the Indians. We had a great sea- son each of the last two years, but we also have some unfinished business. I would have hated to have not been here when there was still unfinished business.”
That unfinished business is the Indians winning their first World Series title since 1948. Their 70-year drought is the longest current one in the major leagues.
The Indians made it to the Fall Classic two years ago and lost to the Cubs in seven games. Last season, the Indians’ 103-59 record was the best in the AL, but they were knocked off by the Yankees.
Making the losses hurt even more is the Indians led the Cubs three games to one and the Yankees two games to none but have lost six consecutive games in which they could have closed out a series.
Brantley was forced to miss the World Series. Although he returned to play in last year’s ALDS, he was limited by the ankle injury and went 1-for-11 (.091) in three games.
The Indians are the only team Brantley has played for in the major leagues, making his debut in 2009. A year earlier, he was acquired from the Brewers as part of a trade for CC Sabathia.
The Indians are favored to win a third consecutive AL Central title, and this could be Brantley’s last year in Cleveland because his contract expires at season’s end. So there is a sense of urgency to win it all in 2018.
“It would mean everything to win a World Series,” Brantley said. “It’s what you work so hard for. It’s what everyone in this locker room is working their tail off for every day.
“We’re not shying away from it. We’re not scared to talk about it. We’ve had a couple of opportunities the last two years, and I think we’re good enough to have another one this year.
“This time, we need to capitalize on it. We need to finish the job.”
Michael Brantley, left, is looking for a healthy year so that he can be productive and help the Indians return to the AL playoffs for the third consecutive season. DAVID RICHARD/USA TODAY SPORTS