Braun looking better than ever

It’s as if nothing changed for Ryan Braun.

As if he never had to fight for his name last winter.

As if Prince Fielder was still hitting cleanup behind him in the Milwaukee Brewers lineup.

Braun, 28, is almost exactly the player he was a year ago at this time. The uproar over his positive test for elevated levels of testosterone — and successful appeal and avoidance of a 50-game suspension — long has subsided.

Check his stats: Braun’s 20 homers, 52 RBI and .596 slugging percentage surpass his numbers in those categories after the same amount of games last season, when he was voted National League MVP.

Check the All-Star balloting: Baseball announced Tuesday that Braun was third among NL outfielders in the final voting update; the rosters will be revealed Sunday.

Many of us questioned how he would fare without Fielder, who left the Brewers for a nine-year, $214 million free-agent contract with the Detroit Tigers.

Maybe even more of us questioned how Braun would handle the fallout of his positive test; he became the first player known to have such a test overturned, but some believe he won on a technicality.

Would Braun succumb to the pressure of having to re-establish his legitimacy? Would he lash out if fans on the road treated him harshly? Would he somehow be less of a player than before?

“I truly viewed it as an opportunity to go out there and continue to do what I’ve done throughout my career,” Braun told Tuesday in a telephone interview from Cincinnati.

“I thought that was going to be the single-most important thing I could do to move forward and to get people to see I’m still the player — if anything, better than I’ve ever been in the past.

“It provided added motivation. It was certainly challenging, dealing with everything. But at this point, I’ve definitely moved on. The goal is to continue to do what I’ve done the first couple of months and have my best year yet.”

He is on his way, to the surprise of many.

But not himself.

Braun received the good news on his appeal on Feb. 23. In a 2-1 vote, a baseball panel agreed that his test sample was handled improperly. Braun reported to spring training in Maryvale, Ariz., and held a news conference the next day.

Hitters generally thrive in Arizona during spring training. Braun, though, batted only .213 with two home runs in 47 at-bats.

Reporters wondered if Braun was distracted.

Braun expressed little concern.

“I knew it was all going to be fine,” said Braun, who described spring training as “relatively meaningless” and the results as “irrelevant.”

“My biggest strength as a baseball player is my confidence,” Braun continued. “I always know that as long as I’m able to stay healthy, success is inevitable.

Yet, even if Braun had never tested positive — and even if a leak to had not broken the confidentiality promised to him by the sport’s drug-testing program — he would have faced a major adjustment this season.

The absence of Fielder.

Between 2007 and ’11, Braun started 718 games. In 645 of those — 89.8 percent — Fielder started behind him in the batting order, according to STATS LLC.

“Honestly, I was less concerned about what it would mean for me and more concerned about what it would mean for us as a team,” Braun said. “Prince is one of the best offensive players in the game. He played the game with so much energy, so much passion. He brought so much to the team.

“For me, personally, I knew it would certainly be more challenging offensively, hitting without him behind me. But I didn’t know what to expect. Basically, every game I had played in the big leagues up to this point, he was hitting behind me.”

The Brewers signed free-agent third baseman Aramis Ramirez to hit cleanup behind Braun. Both Ramirez and right fielder Corey Hart, the team’s most frequent No. 5 hitter, are performing well this season. But Braun said there is “no doubt” that pitchers are working him differently. He already has received five intentional walks, his most in any season, and that’s just one indicator.

“There would be situations in the past where if I got to 2-0 or 3-1, there would be a good chance I’d get a strike to hit because teams didn’t want to put that extra baserunner on base with Prince coming up,” Braun said.

“But there are situations now where I know they are definitely not trying to throw a strike. If they are, they’re trying to put it down and away on the black, or down and in on the black. There is less fear of walking somebody when you don’t have one of the best hitters in baseball behind you.”

Braun said that plate discipline is not something that comes naturally to him, yet he has improved his walk rate every year since his first full season in 2008. This year, though, he is striking out every 5.19 plate appearances, an increase from his career-best 6.76 in 2011. His chase rate on pitches outside the strike zone is at a career-high level, according to

Overall, though, Braun is in the midst of an excellent offensive season, even though the Brewers are 33-41 and 8½ games back in the NL Central, in large part due to a faulty bullpen.

Braun’s home-run rate — one every 13.35 at-bats — would be the best of his career over of a full season. He is tied for the NL lead with 20 homers and among the league leaders in on-base and slugging percentage.

So much for the loss of Fielder.

If Braun could pick one word to describe his frame of mind as he prepared for the season, what would it be?

Anxious? Determined? Hellbent?

“I was excited,” Braun said, “excited to go play baseball and focus on playing the game and enjoying the game instead of dealing with all the BS that I had to deal with in the offseason.”

“The drama,” as Braun calls it.

When it was all over, he faced unique scrutiny.

If Braun had struggled offensively, those who believed that he deserved a suspension could have said, See? He really was using performance-enhancing drugs. And he can’t hit without them.

The late Ted Williams, one of the greatest hitters of all time, once said that hitting a baseball is the single most difficult thing to do in sport. Even elite hitters such as Albert Pujols struggle on occasion. Yet Braun couldn’t struggle, not this season.

He had to block out all the noise.

He had to succeed.

“It was definitely a process. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t like I was able to snap my fingers and pretend like nothing had happened,” Braun said.

“There was nothing to prepare me to deal with something like that. There was nobody I could really talk to, who could relate to what I was going through. It was a trial-and-error process.

“I felt like I’ve always been really strong mentally and emotionally. And certainly the biggest challenge was … being able to live in the moment and focus on what I was doing.

“For the most part, honestly, I moved on really quickly. I very rarely dwell on the past in anything in my life because it doesn’t do any good. I can’t go back and change anything. Nothing is going to go differently than what already had happened. The goal is always to move forward, to move on.”

He said he didn’t worry about fan or media reaction — “I live my life for myself, for my family, for my close friends. Anybody else’s opinion is basically irrelevant to me.”

Braun, however, makes it clear that people are entitled to their opinions. And while the fan reaction outside of Milwaukee, in his own words, has been “sort of mixed,” he added, “For the most part, everywhere I’ve been, people have been really supportive, and I’m really appreciative of that.”

Understand: Braun always expected to be the same player. He said he is not going to be satisfied with 2½ good months. His expectation is to produce his best season, then continue to improve over the next 10 to 12 years.

But what about his reputation?

How driven is he to get it back?

“I’m very driven, of course,” Braun said. “I’ve worked my whole career, my whole life, to be viewed the person that I know that I am and that everyone who knows me knows that I am.

“Certainly in dealing with all of the drama, all of that was called into question. So obviously, I’m looking forward to continue going out there, doing the same things I’ve done on the field, being the same person I’ve been off the field.

“Eventually, I have no doubt that everyone will actually understand who I am and what I went through.”

His fifth consecutive election to the All-Star Game would indicate some level of understanding; Braun leads the San Francisco Giants’ Melky Cabrera by more than 120,000 votes for the final starting job in the NL outfield.

But the mere fact that Braun is producing at such a high level — post-Fielder, post-drama — is testament not just to his baseball skill, but also his powerful will.

It’s as if nothing changed.