MILWAUKEE — Now leading off for the Brewers ... outfielder Ryan Braun?
It could have happened in spring training. But the Milwaukee slugger’s suggestion to manager Ron Roenicke went nowhere, giving Braun one less adjustment to make after returning from a 65-game drug suspension that ended his 2013 season early.
Two months into 2014 and things are going just fine for the Brewers and their star outfielder. Milwaukee leads the NL Central, while Braun is hitting .315 and making a smooth transition from left to right field. He’s even third in among NL outfielders in All-Star balloting as of Wednesday.
“Most of those things ... seem to be a result of team success but I think the better our team does, the higher likelihood we have of having multiple All-Stars. The fact that we’re off to a good start is encouraging in that regard,” Braun said. “But other than, I don’t pay much attention to it.”
Fans are still clearly paying attention to Braun. Just take a take a look around during a typical game at Miller Park at all the fans wearing No. 8 Braun shirts. They offered rousing applause after Braun’s hard bouncer down the right-field line for a double drove in two runs in the second inning of an 8-3 win Wednesday over the Baltimore Orioles.
On the road, Braun gets his share of boos. The 2011 NL MVP expected nothing less upon his return from his suspension from the Biogenesis doping scandal.
Braun had seven homers and 23 RBIs going into this weekend’s three-game homestand against the Chicago Cubs despite missing two weeks with a right oblique injury. The lineup has been clicking especially the five games since Braun was moved to the No. 2 hole as manager Ron Roenicke sought to spark the team’s slumbering bats. Braun is hitting .455 (10 for 22) with five runs during that period.
“I think it’s advantageous to get your best hitters as many plate appearances as possible, so if I’m hitting second I get 15 more at-bats or whatever it is over the course of the season than I would if I’m hitting third,” Braun said. “So I think it’s in our best interest as a team. We’ve certainly swung the bats well over the last 6-7 days, so it’s a good thing. So far, so good.”
The move to right has gone well, too. The switch was done in part to give left fielder Khris Davis regular playing time, and he has rewarded the Brewers of late by hitting homers in three straight games.
Braun has looked comfortable tracking down flies on the run and playing angles from his new vantage point in right. He looks right at home in Miller Park, and Braun said it’s a matter of getting used to the position as he goes from stop to stop on the road.
The move, along with the gloves flashed by infield newcomers Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay, has boosted a defense that also includes Gold Glove-winner Carlos Gomez in center and the speedy Jean Segura at short.
“Overall I think we’re playing really good defense,” Roenicke said. “We’ve had sloppy games — I think everybody does — but overall I think we’ve done a great job of picking up the pitching staff.”
Pitching, defense and the emergence of Gomez, Segura and catcher Jonathan Lucroy have helped the offense withstand the losses of third baseman Aramis Ramirez (hamstring) and Braun for spurts due to injuries. Braun in April was also bothered by the lingering effects of a right hand injury from last season.
In one respect, the Brewers are less reliant on Braun — though they’re clearly much better when he’s playing. Milwaukee is 22-14 when Braun is in the lineup, and 10-8 when he’s not.
It might make a fan wonder what would have happened if Roenicke heeded Braun’s suggestion back in spring training to lead off. Braun recalled leading off a couple times in Triple-A.
“I don’t think I’ve ever done it in the big leagues that I can remember,” Braun said. “I want to do it, though. I think I could be a really good leadoff hitter.”
He’ll have to settle for second for now.