Ryan Braun Poised to Return to Superstar Form After 3-Home-Run Performance

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistApril 9, 2014

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 04:  Ryan Braun #8 of the Milwaukee Brewers plays against the Boston Red Sox during the Opening Day game at Fenway Park on April 4, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Michael Perez/AP Images

Coming off of a 65-game PED suspension that ended his 2013 season prematurely, there were legitimate questions as to what kind of player Ryan Braun would be for the Milwaukee Brewers this season.

At least for one day, he looked like the superstar player of old, breaking out of an early-season slump with a three-homer game against the Philadelphia Phillies on Tuesday.

The question now is, can Braun keep it up and be one of the most dynamic, all-around offensive players in the game?

He looked great this spring, showing no signs of rust after missing so much time last year in going 15-for-36 (.417 BA) with five doubles and three home runs. That, while he made the transition from left field to right field, after spending the past six seasons in left.

His Cactus League success didn't translate once the regular season kicked off, though, and while the Brewers jumped out to a 4-2 start, he was just 3-for-20 at the plate through the team's first six games.

More concerning than the slow start, however, was the resurfacing of a nagging thumb condition that cost him 27 games last season.

The condition was described as "nerve damage at the base of his thumb that is causing numbness that makes it difficult to grip the bat or throw a baseball," in an article by Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Braun went on to describe the injury at length in the aforementioned article, but the gist of it is that when the issue flares up, he is unable to keep two hands on the bat when he makes contact with the ball.

There was a pair of surgery options laid out for him while he was serving his suspension, but neither was attractive, as one would have left the thumb permanently numb and the other would have resulted in exposed nerve endings that would have been susceptible to pain.

So it seems, for the time being at least, Braun will simply have to make the best of a bad situation.

It was enough of an issue that he sat out the team's Saturday-night game against the Red Sox, but he rebounded with a 2-for-4 game on Sunday before his monster game on Tuesday.

Let's take a closer look at the three blasts, complete with video courtesy of MLB.com.

The first came in the the third inning off of starter Kyle Kendrick, as he took a 1-2 fastball out to left field. Kendrick missed his spot out over the plate a bit, but the pitch was still low, and Braun did a nice job going down to get it.

The second blast came just an inning later, and was again off of Kendrick. It was another fastball, but he left this one up pretty badly, and Braun did a nice job taking it the other way to deep right-center field.

After flying out to center in the sixth, Braun came up for his final at-bat of the game in the eighth inning, facing reliever Brad Lincoln. He jumped on the first pitch again, crushing what looked to be a hanging curveball to deep left-center field.

These are certainly not squeakers over the wall by any means, and while two of the homers were on balls up in the zone, Braun is still flashing some good power here for someone just a couple of days removed from being in enough pain to miss a game.

Chances are, the thumb issue is going to be something that crops up at least a few more times this season, but there's nothing like a three-homer game to put minds at ease. B/R's MLB lead writer Jason Catania agreed with that logic:

The Philadelphia fans were letting Braun hear it all day, and that's likely going to be the case everywhere he goes this year. That could be a detriment to some players, but for Braun, it will likely only put a chip on his shoulder.

In fact, MLB.com beat writer Adam McCalvy tweeted after the game that Braun at least partially attributed the hostility of the fans to his big day:

Being motivated by boos is a mere footnote to the far more significant takeaway from that tweet that he made changes to his swing.

Whether those changes are part of a long-term solution to avoid further issues with the thumb, or this was just a happy coincidence, it's still awfully impressive that someone tinkering with a new swing can hit three bombs in the process.

Looking at the bigger picture, Braun still has the skill set to be a superstar in this league and a serious X-factor for the Brewers. It's just a matter of him finding consistency both in his health and his performance at the plate.

This is a team that led the NL in runs scored in 2012, but fell off greatly last season with Braun suspended and Aramis Ramirez on the shelf. Those two are both back in the lineup now, alongside a starting rotation that was bolstered by the addition of Matt Garza and a bullpen that was quietly one of the best in the NL last year.

If Braun can return to form and post an MVP-caliber campaign, this team has a real chance to contend, and you can count Bob Nightengale of USA Today among those who agree:

And if Tuesday's eruption was any indication, there's an awful lot to like about a three-homer game from Ryan Braun, beyond just a 10-4 victory over the Phillies.


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