Seeking fresh start, Braun held back by injury
Lingering thumb issue hampering Brewers slugger's ability to perform
BOSTON -- Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun was off to maybe his best start ever last May when he walked back to the dugout with numbness in his right thumb. At the time, he didn't give it a second thought.
"There's always little things within the hand," he said. "You get jammed, you hit a ball off the end of the bat, your hand hurts. You just kind of assume it'll go away after a couple of days. That's what I was hoping would occur."
"It didn't. And still hasn't."
Almost a year later, he feels it in everything he does. When someone reached to shake his hand Saturday afternoon, he pulled the right one back.
"I can't," he said.
Is it the sensation of an angry funny bone?
"That's exactly what it feels like," he said. "If you hit the funny bone, and the funny bone never got better for eight months. Not even minimally better."
There are so many layers to his story that it's hard to know where to begin. This was a hugely important season for him.
As you probably heard, his 2013 season ended on July 21 when he agreed to serve a 65-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs.
This season was supposed to be a new beginning, a chance for him to write a different ending to his career. After all, he's still only 30 years old and almost certainly still capable of playing at a high level for years to come.
"I'm not oblivious to the circumstances that are surrounding me," he said. "Trust me. I want more than anything to go out and have my best season."
He entered this season braced to be booed, and the fans at Fenway Park didn't disappoint him on Friday.
If he could just respond to the boos with a 500-foot home run ...
"In light of everything I'm dealing with, it makes it a little bit more frustrating for me than it would otherwise," he said. "I just deal with it the best I can. That's all I can do."
When asked about the booing at Fenway, he said, "I thought there were more cheers than boos."
"No, I'm kidding," he said. "But have I ever come to any of these places and gotten cheered?"
What we didn't know, what we really couldn't have known, is that the thumb injury that sent his numbers spiraling downward last season simply would not get better.
He didn't swing a bat the entire offseason, and when he showed up for Spring Training, there was some improvement.
As he continued to swing the bat, as he went through his usual routine of preparing for a season, the pain and numbness of last season returned.
"The cynics will say my numbers were down [last season]," he said. "My numbers weren't down. My numbers were up. I was on pace to have my best season. I think at the end of 25-30 games, I was hitting .320, had eight homers and was on pace to probably have my best year. I dealt with it for 25 games, for ever how many games I played after that."
He's off to a maddening start this season. In a season in which he hoped for a career rebirth of sorts, he's in one of the worst slumps of his eight-season career.
He's 1-for-16 (.063) and hasn't homered since May 22, 2013, a span of 93 plate appearances, which is three shy of the longest drought of his career, that in 2010.
He's hitting .207 with five extra-base hits since his last home run and after another hitless night on Friday, he was out of the starting lineup on Saturday at Fenway Park.
His right thumb is discolored and bruised because he has no sense of how hard he's gripping the ball to throw it. Likewise, his hitting is impacted.
Perhaps the toughest part of this is that it's impossible to come up with a definitive prognosis. Braun didn't have surgery during the offseason because there simply were no surgical options that promised more than a chance of recovery and some might have had permanent debilitating consequences.
The Brewers' medical staff continues to look for solutions, like different kinds of padding around the thumb. So far, though, nothing has helped.
This is a season of optimism for the Brewers after general manager Doug Melvin upgraded his rotation with the signing of Matt Garza. So far, that rotation has been terrific.
But without Braun putting up his usual numbers in the middle of the lineup, the Brewers are going to be challenged to score enough runs to hang with the leaders in the National League Central.
Still, it is early, and because Braun is dealing with a nerve issue, because there's really no road map on what to expect, things can change quickly.
"We all deal with different things with our body throughout the course of a season," he said. "This has been the most frustrating one I've deal with -- ever."
He points to his right thumb.
"This nerve is messed up," he said. "You see all this discoloration? I can't feel anything. I can't tell that I touched my thumb. So it causes other issues up and down."
He's doing a wonderful job of hiding his frustration, and when pressed on the matter, will say that every player deals with physical issues. He has boiled things down to a simple process.
"Just kind of hope for the best," he said.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.