Healthy dose of optimism after Brantley debut

LF homers, contributes OF assist, still targets Opening Day

Healthy dose of optimism after Brantley debut

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Corey Kluber did not see the swing. After hearing the familiar crack of Michael Brantley's bat on Saturday night, the Indians pitcher saw the baseball soaring into the air. And, really, Kluber did not need to see the smooth blur of Brantley's bat slicing through the strike zone.

If you have seen one of Brantley's swings, you have seemingly seen them all.

Indians Spring Training info

"I'm sure it was the same swing he takes on every ball," Kluber said. "He's got the same swing no matter what. He's got a really short, simple swing. I think that's why he's able to repeat it so easily. I'm not a hitting coach, but if I could teach somebody a swing, I'd say swing like that."

In a 10-5 victory over the Cubs in a packed Goodyear Ballpark, Brantley made his much-anticipated Spring Training debut and displayed the same swing that has turned him into a star for Cleveland. Brantley had three at-bats, belted a two-run home run and even contributed an outfield assist in his first Cactus League action of the preseason.

Brantley plays in Minors game

Brantley's first official stroke of 2016 sent a pitch to the warning track in center field in the opening inning. In the fifth, the noise of Brantley's swing got Kluber's attention, and the baseball that rocketed off his bat landed in the bleacher seats beyond the right-field wall. The crowd roared as Brantley rounded the bases to cap a memorable return to the field.

"I'm very excited," Brantley said. "I woke up at the normal time, even though we had a late [game] time, at 5:45 this morning. I was excited and ready to go. It was a good day."

Brantley underwent labral surgery on his right (non-throwing) shoulder on Nov. 9, and the initial timetable for return projected that the outfielder might be ready by April or May, or even later in the summer. During the Winter Meetings, there were even rumblings that Brantley could be out until August. This spring, Brantley has made it crystal clear that he has his own ideas.

Brantley wants to be in the Opening Day lineup on April 4 against ther Red Sox.

"They told me I was going to be ready when I told them I was ready," Brantley said. "I did everything I could this offseason. I didn't take a day off. I did everything the training staff asked me to, the doctors asked me to. I stuck to the program and I feel good. I've had another surgery before. I know what I have to do to get back."

Indians manager Terry Francona has gone to great lengths to curb expectations, noting repeatedly that the team will not hesitate to put Brantley on the disabled list to start the year, if that is what the medical staff believes is necessary. Brantley is too important to Cleveland's roster, and postseason chances, to risk any setbacks.

60 seconds with Brantley

In recent days, though, Francona has expressed more optimism about Brantley's potential availability for the start of the season.

"I guess I trust him so much that I haven't really been that concerned," Francona said. "Believe me, I know how important he is. But, I know what he's doing and when he's able to be ready, he's going to be ready. And it won't be a moment later."

In the third inning, when Kluber was in a bases-loaded jam with one out, Cubs slugger Kris Bryant yanked a pitch just beyond the reach of shortstop Francisco Lindor and into left field for an RBI single. Ben Zobrist tried to score from second base on the play, but Brantley put a stop to that. The left fielder sprinted in, plucked the ball from the grass and rifled Zobrist out at the plate.

Kluber allowed only the one run in the inning.

"He's one of the better left fielders in baseball," Kluber said. "That was a big play in that inning right there."

It was the second outfield assist through two games played this spring for Brantley. During a Minor League game appearance on Thursday, Brantley threw out Minor Leaguer Mike Papi at second base when the prospect tried to stretch a single to left into a double.

The next step for Brantley is simply to see how his body reacts come Sunday morning.

Following that assessment, the Indians will map out his next game appearance.

"I've still got some bumps in the road to get over," Brantley said. "Tonight was just another step."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.