GOODYEAR, Ariz. — For most teams, seeing an All-Star get two hits in a spring training game would be no big deal. For the Cleveland Indians, watching Michael Brantley swing back into action meant something.
Coming off a year almost totally lost to shoulder trouble, Brantley singled twice, drove in a run and scored once Monday for the Indians in a 14-5 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"I am excited," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "He's worked so hard. I know that playing in a game isn't the end of the road. I'm excited for him. I'm excited potentially for us."
"I think we have to temper that this is not the destination. It is still part of where he's going. He's come an awful long way. Everyone around him has kind of been raving about how he looks. He feels good so, heck yeah, we're excited," he said.
The 29-year-old outfielder is cautiously optimistic about his return to the starting lineup for the AL champions.
"I feel good," Brantley said. "I have more time this year to rehab, build strength and try to get back on my feet. It's been a long process. This is another step in the process."
It seems like an eternity for Brantley since he was 100 per cent healthy.
Brantley dived for a ball in Minnesota on Sept. 22, 2015, and strained his right shoulder. His recovery has taken longer than most anyone imagined and required two surgeries.
Around this time last year, Brantley hit a home run and threw out a runner at home in his first Cactus League action.
Brantley was activated last April 25 last year, but could only play 11 games. He was finished by May 9, hitting .231 with seven RBIs, and could only watch Cleveland's run to the World Series. A tough time for someone who hit .310 for the Indians in 2015 with 15 homers, 84 RBIs and a major league-leading 45 doubles.
"The biggest question last year was playing back-to-back in multiple games," Brantley said. "I've been able to down in the minor leagues" so far this year in camp, he said.
"Hopefully, I'll be able to accomplish that on the major league level soon, but it's one day at a time," he said.
The Indians have been deliberate with his recovery this spring. They set up a program in which he had to accomplish certain goals before he graduated to the next goal. During that progression, he took live batting practice and played in two minor league games, going 1 for 6 with a double, a walk and two RBIs.
The Indians are still taking a long-term approach.
"It is one day at a time," Brantley said. "I'm going to talk to (head trainer) James Quinlan tonight and tomorrow morning and we'll make a decision from there. I was fortunate and blessed enough to be out there with my teammates today. That's what is most important to me right now."
Around the clubhouse, the consensus is that Brantley's personality was returning to normal after struggling with the long rehab process.
"Personality-wise, I don't feel I'm different," Brantley said. "Maybe I'm a little more mature now, that I've learned something. I just try to have fun and enjoy the moment. It's a fun game. It's a team game."
"We have a great group of guys that I love playing with. Hopefully, I can continue to play with them for a long time. You may not always see it on my face, but I love playing this game," he said.