In a disappointing season, a pair of Indians emerging as stars

Tim Brown
Lonnie Chisenhall, left, and Michael Brantley have provided the offensive punch for the Indians this season. (AP Photo)

LOS ANGELES – Funny all the places Michael Brantley has been for the Cleveland Indians. So often on the periphery ‐ the guy behind the guy, the guy next to the guy, the guy you sort of know but don't.

He was the player to be named (three months) later when the Indians sold off CC Sabathia, the prospect who came up when Grady Sizemore was hurt and again when Shin-Soo Choo was, and the regular center fielder until Michael Bourn came available.

Michael Brantley has been an All-Star-caliber performer. (AP Photo)

He'd become a good player, too. They'd taken to calling him Dr. Smooth, a nickname born in the press box and given wings on the ball field, because he was capable, and he was batting fifth for a team that won 92 games, and he looked good doing it.

It was Brantley who decided to be better than that, better than good, better than competent, better than any descriptions of a player who belonged but wasn't entirely memorable. He'd stood all winter in a Florida batting cage with, he said, "my father-slash-hitting coach," the former big league player and coach Mickey Brantley. They'd talked about punishing pitches. They'd practiced it. And while the Indians have not been what they were in 2013, Brantley, at 27 and in his fourth full big-league season, has been far more. He's been, by deed and appearance, an All-Star.

Warm-smile approachable and yet single-minded, Brantley shook his head slowly. Today, he's a .318 hitter with a career-best 12 home runs and a .386 on-base percentage, 10th among American Leaguers in WAR, fifth among outfielders. That's an All-Star. But, today had more at-bats in it, and mid-July is a long way off.

"I live on a one-way highway," he said. "My goal is to win a baseball game today. If [an All-Star Game] is the case down the road, then so be it."

If not, then he'll show up for the second half and stay at it.

– – – – – – – – –

Funny the places Lonnie Chisenhall has been for the Indians. The first-rounder. The prospect the minor leagues couldn't hold. The next big thing in Cleveland, where they really kind of need big things. The starting third baseman at 24. The disappointment at 24 ½. The long shot to make the club at 25.

It was Chisenhall who chose to be better than that, better than the guy who would hit everywhere but here, better than what so many might have thought of him at the moment, better than the judgments he bore when he was just 24.

Lonnie Chisenhall drove in nine runs against the Rangers on June 9. (AP Photo)

In 682 major-league plate appearances, he'd been a .244 hitter with a .284 on-base percentage. Phenoms generally don't OPS in the .600s. In his next and most recent 247 plate appearances beginning April 2, through a five-hit, three-home-run, nine-RBIs game on June 9 in Texas and into July, he's a .345 hitter with a .399 on-base percentage. His OPS is in the mid-900s.

The difference?

"Just taking the hit," he said, and you could take that two ways.

The way he meant it.

"At times last year and the year before I was going up there trying to hit a three-run home run every time," he said. "I had to understand myself as a hitter and not profile myself as a home run hitter. Growing up, I'd hit one way. And then I decided in my head I was going to get pull conscious. So, it was just getting back to what I'd always done, and that was getting the barrel on the ball and running."

The way he didn't.

"A lot of negative things were written," he said. "A lot of negative things were said."

He tilted his head and shrugged. He kept at it. What more could he do?

"I'm not going to hit .350 or .400 every month," he said. "But it's nice to have something to go on. I was fortunate to figure it out when I did."

– – – – – – – – –

The Indians were one-hit Sunday afternoon in Seattle. They picked up, flew to L.A., reported to Dodger Stadium and were one-hit there Monday night. They have lost seven of nine games, fallen 7 ½ games behind the Detroit Tigers, and are four games under .500.

Asked Monday afternoon to assess his Indians at the halfway point, manager Terry Francona declined.

"I could," he said. "I don't want to. There's no reason to."

They are average offensively, below average as a pitching staff. Nick Swisher hasn't hit. Neither has Carlos Santana. Justin Masterson's ERA is more than 5. Their defense is the worst in the league by some measures.

It's July 1. They were 16 games over .500 in the final three months of 2013, most of that in September.

"Our record, whatever our record is, I wish it was better," Francona said, "but I don't know that it does us any good right now to go back and assess halfway. When it's over, we will, and hopefully it'll be good enough."

– – – – – – – – –

The game can be unkind to the group. It can be hostile to the men who play it. And yet it yields to those who believe in a little more of themselves. To Brantley, who went home and got stronger and smarter, who decided good wasn't good enough for him.

Michael Brantley worked hard during the offseason to improve his hitting. (Getty Images)

"I dedicated myself to being a better baseball player," he said.

He slept longer. He ate better. He spent 21 hours working toward the next four at-bats, the next nine hours in left field, all on his one-way highway.

"It's a lot of hard work that's paid off," he said. "A lot of good decisions." And to Chisenhall, who still saw something in himself when plenty of others did not. It can't be easy, not at any age, certainly not at 24 or 25. So much remains to be decided, four at-bats at a time, and a ballplayer cannot be entirely judged on 247 plate appearances, just as he could not be on 682.

So he took the hit. Lately, it means more.

"Looking back," he said, "maybe having that failure the way I had it early was actually helpful. It happens later for some guys than others. … I'm confident. I know what kind of player I am and what kind of player I can be. It doesn't just go away."

Funny the places he's been. So, I ask, who is most proud of him today?

He thought.

"You know," he said, "to be a little selfish here, I'm proud of myself."

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