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Ryan Braun has been the hero in September, but Brewers will have to finish regular season without him

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He underwent an MRI that confirmed a minor calf strain.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

“I’m definitely not as good as I was, but in big moments, I’m the guy, still. I still want that opportunity. I still believe in myself. I’ve had a lot of success in those moments and I think I’m able to ‘lock it in’ a little bit more.”

- Ryan Braun

For 13 years, Ryan Braun has been “the guy” in Milwaukee. No player in franchise history has a higher win probability added than Braun and he now has played an integral part in sending the Brewers to four postseasons, including the 2019 playoffs. Braun previously hit memorable go-ahead home runs in postseason clinching games in 2008 and 2011, and his grand slam in the first inning of Wednesday’s game against Cincinnati provided the go-ahead runs that pushed the Brewers on to the first back-to-back playoff berths since 1981-82.

Braun’s bottom-line results say that he hasn’t been a premier hitter since the start of 2017. But after bottoming out with career-lows in batting average, on-base percentage, and wRC+ in 2018, Braun has bounced back nicely this year thanks in large part to a batting average on balls in play that is up 51 points from last season — from a worst-ever .274 back to .325, right in line with his career total. His batting line currently sits at a healthy .285/.343/.505, with an OPS (.849) and wRC+ (117) on pace to be his highest outputs since his down-ballot MVP season in 2016. With 22 dingers and 11 steals, Braun recorded his 10th 20/10 season this year at age 35. And perhaps most importantly, he has raised his game up to his previous MVP-caliber form for the second straight September, propelling an even more improbable hot streak by the Brewers in 2019.

Braun was actually enduring a bit of a cold spell when his pal and reigning Most Valuable Player Christian Yelich went down for the season with a broken kneecap on September 10th. Since the start of the next day’s game, however, no hitter on the Brewers has picked up more of the slack than the Hebrew Hammer. In 45 plate appearances since, Braunie has hit .325/.400/.725 for a team-leading 183 wRC+. He also ranks top on the club with four home runs and 15 runs batted in since the Yelich injury, as well as with his 0.6 fWAR.

Braun’s current scorching September is actually part of what has been a tremendous second half overall. Since the All-Star break, he’s batting .307/.377/.587 with 10 home runs among 28 extra-base hits for a 143 wRC+ in 60 games and 206 plate appearances. His bat seems as potent as ever, as he ranks among league leaders in exit velocity (87th percentile) and hard contact (84th percentile). In fact, his current 45.7% rate of hard contact is the highest output that he’s ever recorded, no small feat when playing at age 35 with the career that Braun has already put together. And he’s been available almost everyday, too — 144 games is his highest number of appearances dating back to 2012 and his 508 plate appearances are the most that he has accrued since 2016.

But that may all be about to change. Braun was pulled early from last night’s loss to the Colorado Rockies, and after the game it was revealed that he suffered a left calf strain and will need to undergo an MRI. He expressed optimism in the locker room after the contest, telling the media that “[i]t feels a little bit better now than it did when it first happened, so I’m encouraged by that.” But Braun missed more than a month’s worth of games with a calf strain in 2017, so depending on what the imaging shows, this could potentially spell the end of his season.

One could say that that would be a devastating blow to this Brewers team, but it would simply be the latest on and already lengthy list of issues that should have each been a death knell to their playoff hopes. Getting written off as done is nothing new for our beloved local nine in 2019, but they are now without Yelich, they might be without Braun, they have only a limited Mike Moustakas as he nurses a sore throwing elbow, and Eric Thames and Lorenzo Cain are also dealing with nagging maladies. How much more can these guys take and keep winning?

UPDATE:

Braun told the media before tonight’s game that he has been diagnosed with a mild calf strain. He doesn’t expect to play tonight or tomorrow as the Brewers finish up the regular season, but he could be available on Monday for a possible game 163 or Tuesday’s Wild Card game. Braun called it “the best case scenario” for his injury.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Savant