Phoenix - Place an obstacle in front of Ryan Braun, and he usually surmounts it, often with ease.
That well-documented fortitude will be challenged in a different and daunting way this season in light of the drug-test controversy that haunted the Milwaukee Brewers' star leftfielder throughout the off-season. The outcome was better than many expected when Braun avoided a 50-game suspension by winning his appeal to an arbitration panel. That decision generated debate from coast to coast as to whether he escaped on a technicality, which was the viewpoint of MLB officials. But it was a tremendous relief for Braun and the Brewers , who would have faced the devastating 1-2 punch of losing Prince Fielder to free agency and Braun for nearly a third of the season.
The verdict did not mean the matter would die a quick death, however.
"I'm not dumb enough to pretend this is going to go away," Braun said in his news conference after being exonerated. "I recognize that this is going to be a challenge I'll have to face for a while." Because confidentiality was breached when the news was leaked to ESPN, he wasn't afforded the designed cloak of anonymity. Accordingly, every time he puts on a Brewers uniform this year, he will be under special scrutiny.
Under any circumstances, it wouldn't be easy to repeat the 2011 season that netted Braun the National League most valuable player award. He batted a career-high.332 with 33 home runs, 111 runs batted in, 33 stolen bases, 109 runs scored and a.597 slugging percentage, tops in the NL.
Braun also topped the circuit with 77 extra-base hits and.994 OPS and was second with 336 total bases in 150 games. He joined Tommy Harper (1970) as the only players in franchise history with a 30/30 season (homers, steals).
While it was the best all-around performance of his five seasons in the majors, it was not a quantum leap beyond previous accomplishments.
The Silver Slugger Award was his fourth in a row; it was his fourth consecutive season with 100 RBI and the fourth time in five years with at least 32 homers.
As Braun was quick to note, he passed every single drug test administered by MLB over that time.
"It's not like it was his first big year," said teammate Nyjer Morgan.
"He's been doing this his enson career." Still, there will be skeptics if Braun's production falls off even slightly, or if he gets off to a slow start. He is well aware of the insinuations that would follow and referenced them at his news conference after his exoneration. "There are a lot of haters; there's a lot of people who have doubted me," he said. "There's a lot of people who continue to doubt me and will continue to doubt me, so this has certainly been added motivation for me.
"To say that I'm excited to get started would be a significant understatement." Handles pressure well Braun certainly has thrived under pressure since coming to Milwaukee. He has delivered some of the biggest hits in franchise history, including a two-run homer in the final game of the 2008 season against the Chicago Cubs that helped clinch the NL wild-card berth as well as a monstrous three-run blast against Florida on Sept. 23 of last season that gave the Brewers their first NL Central crown.
The controversy surrounding Braun's drug test, appeal and exoneration creates a different kind of pressure than he has faced in the past, but Brewers manager Ron Roenicke believes he's up to it.
"This is a very confident guy," said Roenicke. "He feels like when he's healthy he can do anything really that he wants to in the game. I think if you put pressure on him, it helps him. You ask him to do something that other people might not be capable of doing; I think he can do it.
"Sometimes, that added incentive really pumps a guy up and sometimes it gives him more pressure. I don't think Ryan feels more pressure in those situations, which is huge when you come off the season he had, for one, then all the controversy he had this off-season. I think for him, it motivates him." For the past five seasons, Braun and Fielder formed one of the most potent duos in the major leagues. In 2011, they combined for 71 homers and 231 RBI. The Brewers tried to close the gap on the missing production of Fielder by signing third baseman Aramis Ramirez, who will bat fourth behind Braun.
Had Braun missed nearly a third of the season, that gap would have widened again, but Roenicke believes his new 3-4 tandem will do plenty of damage. "It's pretty hard to beat Braun and Prince," said Roenicke. "But I think with what we have, how (general manager) Doug (Melvin) filled that spot, I'm very happy with what we have 3-4." Never one to lack for confidence, Braun also believes being available for the full season will make a major difference for a team that expects to be a postseatire contender again. "Hopefully, it certainly helps our chances," he said at his news conference. "I tried to remain positive. I tried to believe that I was going to be exonerated and that I was going to get an opportunity to play all 162 games.
"I'd certainly like to think that having myself in the lineup that extra 50 games will help our team." Some nights might be tougher than others, especially if Braun is struggling at the plate on the road. Fans can be ugly under far less controversial circumstances, and Braun is certain to hear from leather-lunged spectators who will test his snapping point.
Braun, who signed a five-year, $105 million extension last April that keeps him with the Brewers through at least 2020, can only discourage such behavior by keeping his cool.
"I touched on it briefly with him," said Roenicke. "He's going to be fine. He handles himself very well for a guy as young as he is. When he's in front of the public, in front of you guys in the media, this is a very sharp young man." "As a star player, he gets heckled anyway," added Melvin. "Most star players do. You've seen him perform in pressure situations.
"At his press conference, he performed very well. That might be as much pressure as he's going to face all year. There will be times when it will be difficult, but he's pretty good at blocking things out." One thing is certain. Braun's remarkable focus will be tested like never before.
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Copyright, 2012, Journal Sentinel, All Rights Reserved.