Rule of thumb: Braun hopes to avoid injury

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By Tom Haudricourt
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
March 3, 2015

PHOENIX--Ryan Braun remembers the exact pitch.

“It was a changeup from Joe Kelly,” he said.

The Milwaukee Brewers right fielder referred to the game on May 18, 2013, against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. With the game tied, 4-4, Braun stepped into the batter’s box to lead off the 10th inning against Kelly, a right-hander with a starting background pitching out of the bullpen at the time.

On a 2-1 count, Kelly threw a deceiving changeup that Braun managed to stay back on long enough to bounce it past the pitcher and into center field for a single. As Braun ran to first base he felt a stinging sensation in his right thumb.

“We all deal with different things with our hands and thumbs,” Braun said of hitters in general. “You can imagine how many times you hit a ball off the end of the bat or you get jammed. Every time, there are different sensations in our hands.

“Sometimes, it’s worse than others but it always goes away. This one didn’t go away. I couldn’t feel my thumb for a while. I don’t know if I got jammed or if it was off the end of the bat. It could have been either way. It was just one of those fluke things that happens over the course of a season.”

This time, Braun knew something was different. When he returned to the clubhouse the next afternoon, his thumb was still numb.

“I wasn’t able to feel my thumb at all for a while,” he recalled.

A hitter’s top hand is crucial to his swing and offensive production. It controls the plane of his swing, is a primary component in driving the baseball with authority and maintaining a firm grip on the bat. The longer you keep that hand on the bat, the more success a hitter will enjoy.

With each successive game after that day in St. Louis, Braun had more trouble gripping the bat properly with his top hand. The sensation in his thumb alternated between stinging pain and numbness. It became evident it was more than the jammed thumb hitters often experience for brief periods without lingering effects.

Doctors eventually determined Braun suffered nerve damage in the padding between his thumb and index finger. The hope was that it would ease with time but it did not, and on June 9 he was placed on the disabled list. Braun wouldn’t play again for a month.

“I wasn’t productive after that,” he said. “Up to that point, I was on pace to have my best season.”

Indeed, Braun was batting .326 with a .995 OPS after igniting the winning two-run rally with that single off Kelly. He had eight homers and 28 RBI through 37 games.

As it turned out, Braun was not destined to play many more games that season in any event. Unbeknown to the public, Major League Baseball’s investigation into the Biogenesis clinic had snared 13 major-league players, including Braun, for buying and using performance-enhancing drugs.

On July 22, Braun accepted a 65-game suspension that covered the remainder of the season, admitting his use of PEDs as well as a year and a half of lies after a positive test for synthetic testosterone during the playoffs in 2011. Under the sensational glare of that spotlight, many folks forgot about Braun’s thumb injury.

Braun did not forget about the thumb. With the suspension extending his “off-season” to an unnaturally long 5 ½ months, the hope was that his right thumb would heal itself.

It did not.

Shortly after reporting to Maryvale Baseball Park last spring, it became evident to Braun that his thumb was still an issue. There were good days when he looked like the MVP-caliber hitter of 2011 but other days he looked like a bush leaguer at the plate, flailing at pitches and pulling his top hand off the bat. The supreme confidence and plate discipline that made him a special hitter had all but vanished.

Braun managed to put together a respectable first half, batting .298 with 11 homers, 52 RBI and .863 OPS, helping the surprising Brewers stay atop the NL Central. But, when the team needed him most at the end of the season, Braun disappeared along with the rest of the offense.

As the Brewers staggered to a 9-22 finish that shockingly knocked them completely out of the playoffs, Braun was helpless at the plate. In September, he batted .210 with one homer, five RBI and .603 OPS. Braun tried different methods of trying to protect the thumb, including extra padding in his batting glove and on the bat, with no real success.

Something had to be done. After much medical consultation and research, the decision was made for Braun to undergo a somewhat experimental cryotherapy procedure.

On Oct. 2, at the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic in Los Angeles, Vernon B. Williams introduced subzero temperatures into the damaged nerve at the base of the thumb with a needle. Braun experienced almost immediate relief, a good sign.

A better omen was that the thumb continued to feel good throughout the winter, even as Braun ramped up his workouts with batting practice sessions. Of course, it could go south again at any time but the hope is it will remain asymptomatic, allowing the five-time all-star to return to the production that saw him average 34 homers, 107 RBI and a .313 batting average from 2007-’12.

“It’s been a while since I’ve felt as good as I do now,” Braun proclaimed after arriving at camp. “Everything has gone as well as I could have hoped. I’m excited about it. Hopefully, the next few weeks will be the same and we can stop talking about it at some point in the future.”

No one is more invested in the outcome than the Brewers. Next season, the five-year, $105 million contract extension Braun signed in 2011 kicks in, committing a large percentage of the payroll to one player even with $18 million in deferred payments.

Braun, 31, will be nearly 37 by the end of that deal, and hitters often see their production wane in their mid 30s. But the deal will degenerate into a total disaster if the thumb condition returns and accelerates that natural decline.

The Brewers are not a one-man team but there is no question they are a much bigger force when Braun swings the bat as he did before May 18, 2013. Only time will tell if that proves to be the case but suffice it to say many fingers are crossed at Miller Park Way.

“That’s the biggest key to success,” said Braun, who plans to limit his swings this spring to save bullets for when it counts. “I’ve always felt as long as I’m healthy, success is inevitable.”

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