Indians' Michael Brantley has encouraging first game since shoulder surgery

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Cleveland Indians left fielder Michael Brantley felt a sense of accomplishment and relief when he stepped in the batter's box Monday. Everything else was gravy.

Brantley, who missed almost the entire 2016 season with a shoulder injury and spent his winter in rehab mode, went 2-for-3 in his Cactus League debut against the Los Angeles Dodgers. He reached on an error and delivered an RBI single off Dodgers starter Brandon McCarthy, then looped another single to right field off reliever Adam Liberatore before leaving the game after five innings.

"This is what you do all the rehab for and why you stick with the process -- to be back out there with your teammates,'' Brantley said. "This is another step in the process, but another good one.''

Brantley, a 2014 All-Star and the third-place finisher in the American League MVP race that season, was limited to 39 at-bats in 11 games in 2016. He began the season on the disabled list with an injury to his right, non-throwing shoulder, and had surgery in August to repair chronic biceps tendinitis.

For the second straight winter, Brantley stayed in Cleveland to concentrate on his rehab rather than go home to Florida for the offseason.

The Indians are counting on Brantley and free-agent signee Edwin Encarnacion to improve a lineup that ranked second in the league to the Boston Red Sox with 777 runs in 2016. A return to form by Brantley is even more important in the aftermath of Sunday's news that Cleveland second baseman Jason Kipnis will probably be out until mid-April with an inflamed shoulder.

"I'm excited for him and excited potentially for us,'' Cleveland manager Terry Francona said in advance of Brantley's return. "We just have to temper that knowing today is not the destination. It's just part of where he's going. But he's come an awful long way, and everybody that's been around him has kind of been raving about how he looks. And he feels good. So heck yeah, we're excited.''

Brantley encountered a defensive hiccup in the first inning when a Chase Utley pop fly dropped between him and Cleveland teammate Yandy Diaz, who was sprinting out from third base. Brantley took responsibility for the mix-up and said he told Diaz, "It's my ball.''

When Brantley stepped to the plate in the bottom of the first inning, a raucous Indians fan in the Goodyear Ballpark stands greeted him by shouting his nickname, "Dr. Smooth.''

"He's there every day,'' Brantley said with a smile. "He supports us, and we support him. But he's loud, and he's there every day.''

When Brantley tried to play through his shoulder injury last season, he would typically fare well in batting practice only to incur setbacks when he ratcheted up the intensity in games. He plans to confer with Indians head athletic trainer James Quinlan on Tuesday, and if all goes well, the tentative plan is for him to be back in the lineup against the Colorado Rockies on Wednesday and Thursday.

At this stage of Brantley's comeback, health takes precedence over results. But the two hits -- including one off a left-handed pitcher, Liberatore -- made for an encouraging start.

"Hitting's hard,'' Brantley said. "I'm just trying to make it as simple as possible and get the barrel to the ball consistently. The more at-bats I get, hopefully the better it turns out.''