MINNEAPOLIS — Ryan Braun is picky about his successes.
Some are relevant. His three home runs in two games are, as is his 11-game hitting streak. The Milwaukee Brewers’ 6-2 win over the Minnesota Twins Saturday — that’s relevant, too.
Others, like his 21-game interleague hitting streak dating back to 2010, are not so important.
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“Is that even a relevant statistic?” Braun asked after Saturday’s two-home run afternoon.
He wasn’t being flippant, or modest. He was pointing out the facts. It’s a statistic that dates back three years and covers five different opponents. It’s spread over slumps and hot streaks, over an MVP season and perhaps his worst year in the majors. It’s simply not the best way to capture what Braun is doing.
That’s why it bothers him. Braun works hard at this, and he doesn’t want it cheapened or even enhanced by a statistic that means so little. Not when Saturday he was almost more surprising when grounding out than when hitting his second home run of the day out of Target Field.
Braun seemed unstoppable, pushing his average from .314 to .322 in a matter of hours, his interleague batting mark from .467 to .500. (That’s in the eight games this season, so it’s at least somewhat relevant.) On a day like Saturday, in a series like this one, it was hard to expect the Brewers left fielder to make an out at all. In coaxing the ball to hit Braun’s bat just so in the ninth inning, Twins reliever Jeff Manship did what had been done only once before in eight at-bats in Minnesota. He shut Braun down.
So far in this series against the Twins, Braun is 5-for-7 with three home runs and five RBI. In five games against the Twins in 2012, he’s batting .650. But it hasn’t always been this good, and this string of interleague play has capped a steady climb back toward league-leading numbers.
Braun’s average dipped to .245 on April 20, but he’s been steadily resurgent ever since, creeping ever closer to the .332 average that earned him the National League MVP award in 2011. Even when it was bad, it wasn’t that bad, so now that it’s better, it’s great.
“He certainly doesn’t get as cold as most people, but when he’s got his swing going, it doesn’t matter too much who’s pitching against him,” Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. “He can hit the best pitchers.”
It’s hard to credit Braun’s interleague success to any particular starting pitching he’s faced. So far this season, he’s gone up against Scott Diamond and Liam Hendriks, two rookies. He’s also faced pitchers he’s more familiar with — Jason Marquis and Jonathan Sanchez — who have spent significant time in the National League, and American League veterans Luke Hochevar, Carl Pavano, Luis Mendoza and Francisco Liriano. There’s no way to attribute this to ease or unfamiliarity. It’s impossible to credit or blame a pitcher or a style.
This is all Ryan Braun.
“He’s a strong guy,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He knows what he’s looking for. He knows how to cover the plate. He knows how to protect. He fights off some pitches and finally gets to a pitch that he can do something with. He’s a really smart hitter and a very strong hitter with a very quick bat.”
Those are the attributes Braun must be proud of, his ability to adjust and hit whatever is coming his way. He can control that. He can observe and adjust and earn a reputation as one of the smartest hitters in the game. It doesn’t hurt that he’s actually getting a chance to exert that control, either.
Braun’s two walks this series have been his first two of interleague play. After walking only six times in April, the left fielder got 16 free passes in May, but those numbers are down again in June; he has only three walks so far this month. It might seem crazy to pitch to Braun, especially without Prince Fielder behind him, but Roenicke said he’s not surprised.
“I know everybody thinks it is easy to pitch around people,” Roenicke said. “It is not easy to pitch around people. Every time you do it, you worry about that next guy coming up there, and every time you put people on base, they’ve got a chance to score, and you turn the lineup over faster.”
Maybe the Twins have been using that rationale this weekend, but their strategies don’t seem to be working. Just hours after Roenicke talked about how difficult it is to know if a fly ball is a home run at Target Field, Braun started erasing that lingering doubt. There was something about the frequency, the precedent he’s set and the crack of the bat, that almost erased all question.
We shouldn’t expect these balls to be home runs, not when they’re headed toward the opposite field. Logic says no, but everything Braun has done this weekend and this month says yes, emphatically.
When you make people start to think like that, you can be discerning. You can take pride in only what matters. There’s no creativity needed to evaluate Ryan Braun. He’ll show you what’s relevant.