With Braun back, Brewers hope to contend again

MILWAUKEE (AP) — Two pitches into his spring training return, the Brewers’ most important player tried to prove his point.

Home run, Ryan Braun.

Now let’s see how he fares when the games count.

Bolstered by the return of Braun from a 65-game doping suspension and the signing of free-agent starter Matt Garza, Milwaukee enters the 2014 season hoping it has the pieces to contend again in the competitive NL Central.

Braun has vowed to return to his 2011 MVP form.

“I think the expectation is to have an opportunity to compete to get back to the playoffs. That’s our goal, I think it’s realistic,” Braun said during spring training in Phoenix.

Staying healthy would help, too. Besides Braun’s suspension, injuries sapped much of the Brewers’ power last year with projected 3-4-5 hitters Braun, Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart each missing various lengths of time. Hart never played because of a knee injury.

Hart is gone, but Braun and Ramirez are back and bolstered by new team cornerstones who emerged last season in Carlos Gomez, Jean Segura and Jonathan Lucroy.

Five things to watch headed into new season at Miller Park:

ALL APOLOGIES: Braun heard mainly cheers after homering in his first spring training road game and got booed initially by visiting fans in his Brewers spring home opener.

Judging by the reception he received at an offseason team outreach event, Braun will likely be welcomed back with open arms in Milwaukee. The road might be another story.

Braun apologized several times in the offseason for his suspension last July for his involvement with Biogenesis, a Florida clinic accused of distributing performance-enhancing drugs. He has returned to a new position, moving across the outfield from left to right.

At the very least, he was doing just fine at the plate, hitting .440 with two homers and five RBIs in 25 spring at-bats as of Monday.

“He had a lot good years with not doing anything wrong. I expect him to be the same player, yes,” manager Ron Roenicke said this spring.

LEADING OFF: After a banner 2013, Gomez has a new home in the lineup this season. Meet the Brewers’ new leadoff hitter.

He’s an intriguing choice after hitting .284 with 24 homers, 73 RBIs and 40 steals last season. Gomez goes all out every play and infuses the team with energy.

Gomez hit mainly in the middle of the order last season, but Roenicke has options now with a healthy roster. But there’s one stat that could spell trouble atop the order— Gomez struck out 146 times last year.

Roenicke has said he doesn’t want Gomez to change his aggressive approach.

“My dream is to play every day, no matter where in the lineup. If I get my three or four at-bats, I’m happy,” Gomez said.

ARMS RACE: Garza had a rough start to the spring before tossing six quality innings Sunday, striking out six and allowing one run and four hits. No one in the organization seemed too concerned by Garza’s early spring performance, though the outing likely brought some relief.

Garza signed a $50 million, four-year contract in the offseason. He bolsters a top of the rotation that features Yovani Gallardo and Kyle Lohse. Marco Estrada has also had a good spring with a 2.70 ERA.

LINING UP: Gomez and Segura would give the Brewers quite the speedy duo atop the order ahead of Braun, Ramirez and Lucroy.

Besides getting off to a good start in April, Roenicke hopes the team can avoid a repeat of last season’s 6-22 record in May. He’s hoping the veterans Braun and Ramirez can help stabilize the lineup after the roster shuffle last year.

“Realistically, instead of hoping some of the young guys come through, we’re figuring that, with experience, the mixture of the veterans and youth will be a good combination for us.”

DOG DAYS: Former stray dog Hank, thought to be a bichon frise mix — or possibly part poodle, Lhasa apso or Maltese — has been taken in by a team executive after being found at the team’s spring training complex. Named for Milwaukee great Hank Aaron, little Hank is a hit with the Brewers, and a likeness of the cuddly canine’s face can now be found on T-shirts, pins and pennants. Twenty percent of proceeds are going to the Wisconsin Humane Society, and the team is using the warm-and-fuzzy story to raise awareness of strays and pet adoptions.

There’s even talk of a possible Hank bobblehead doll.

“I think he still has legs, if you will,” chief operating officer Rick Schlesinger quipped this week. “No pun intended.”