PHOENIX — Ryan Braun can't pinpoint the exact date, but he can remember with some clarity when his right thumb began bothering him.
"It was a changeup against Joe Kelly in St. Louis," Braun said Wednesday as he reported to spring training with the rest of Milwaukee's position players. "I think it was an extra-inning game at some point in 2013."
"It's been a while since I've felt as good as I do now," he said.
A little research can pinpoint the moment exactly: It was May 18, 2013. Braun led off the 10th inning with a single against Kelly in what would ultimately be a 6-4 victory for the Brewers.
The numbers back up Braun's memory.
That single improved his career batting average to .314. In 920 games to that point, he'd hit 210 home runs with 671 RBIs.
Since then, though, Braun has batted just .264 with 20 home runs and 91 RBIs in 159 games — he missed the last 65 of that 2013 season because of a suspension for his role in the Biogenesis drug investigation.
The 2011 NL MVP last year posted a career-low .266 batting average with 19 home runs and 81 RBIs. In September, he hit .210 with a home run and five RBIs over the final 23 games.
In the days after the season ended, Braun underwent a procedure to freeze the balky nerve that was causing problems.
Since then, Braun says he's felt good. Really good. And with the 2015 season a few weeks away, he's hoping to finally turn the page on the most difficult stretch of his eight-year career.
"It's an important year for him," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "That's why it's nice to see him coming healthy and hopefully, we can keep him that way. When he's healthy, we know what he is capable of doing."
So far, Braun says there are no signs of trouble. He began swinging a bat a little earlier than usual during the offseason but reported to camp feeling fine and fully expecting a normal workload.
"I've been able to do everything I would typically do over the course of an offseason, which is encouraging," he said. "Hopefully I'll be healthy. But aside from that, I don't think I'll be limited or anything. I'll have to be conscious about how many extra swings I take and stuff like that, but aside from that I should be able to do everything."
More than anyone else, Braun's health will go a long way in determining the Brewers' fortunes. It's no coincidence that his September swoon coincided with a late-season collapse that left Milwaukee home for the playoffs despite leading the NL Central for 150 days.
"I think we've addressed that enough," he said. "Obviously, it was difficult, but it was last year."
"When you show up this year, you know you can't do anything about last year. None of us can change what happened. We wish things would have ended differently than they did but they didn't," he said. "Hopefully, the focus is on this year and doing everything we can to prepare the best that we can every day to be successful and to get off to a good start in April."
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