The return of Ryan Braun from an historic 65-game suspension hadn't gone the way anyone associated with the Mliwaukee Brewers outfielder had hoped. Blame it on nerves, or a nagging thumb injury, but whatever the case, the former MVP hadn't looked good through the first week of the 2014 season.
Then came Tuesday's offensive explosion, and just like that Braun showed off the kind of power that made him a five-time All-Star and the 2011 National League MVP.
Braun belted three home runs and drove in a team record-tying seven runs in Milwaukee's 10-4 win at Philadelphia. Coming into the game he was hitting .150 with no homers or RBI, with just three singles in 20 at-bats this season.
"I didn’t think there was any chance I could possibly have a day like this,” Braun told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's Tom Haudricourt. “The game works in mysterious ways. It’s a crazy game sometimes.”
Braun hadn't homered since May 22, and appeared to be plagued by the same thumb ailment that limited him to just 61 games last season before he was suspended 65 games by Major League Baseball for his connection to Florida anti-aging clinic Biogenesis.
His return last week was met by a standing ovation from his home fans in Milwaukee, but when the Brewers hit the road, the boos rained down. First in Boston and then in Philly. Braun had no answer for those jeers until Tuesday, when in his second at-bat in the fourth inning he belted a three-run homer to left and then calmly trotted around the bases to a chorus of not-so-pleasant reactions from the Citizens Bank Park crowd:
Braun hit a solo shot in the fourth, then smacked another three-run bomb in the eighth for his second career three-homer game and first since April 2012.
Before 2013 Braun was one of the game's best all-around hitters, averaging 33 home runs and 107 RBI with a batting average better than .300 in five of six seasons. A failed drug test during the 2011 playoffs tarnished his image, though his adamant claims that the results were tainted kept his reputation mostly intact.
But his link to Biogenesis, and his subsequent suspension moved Braun from the list of heroes to those hated by the average fan. And the slow start following his return only furthered the belief that Braun's numbers were a result of performance-enhancing drug use.
One three-homer game won't completely change popular opinion—in fact, Phillies fans used Tuesday's results to enhance their hatred of Braun—but it does show the 30-year-old does still have the makings of a top-tier player.
Braun told Haudricourt that a key to Tuesday's performance was his decision to put padding inside his batting glove instead of wearing it on the outside of the glove to protect his thumb.
"The less invasive anything is, the more comfortable it is for me as a hitter," Braun said. "Hopefully, we found something else that works."
Braun also shortened his swing and did away with a pronounced leg kick, thus quickening his bat speed and taking pressure of the thumb, he told Haudricourt. Assuming those moves continue to work, Braun's early-season struggles might soon be a distant memory.