Tuesday, July 02, 2002

Change of scenery did Branyan good

Slugger cuts Ks after joining Reds

By Tom Groeschen, tgroeschen@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] Russell Branyan in the Reds dugout Monday.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
| ZOOM |
        Cincinnati has worn well on Russell Branyan, the erstwhile Cleveland slugger who arrived June 7 with that Rob Deer-in-the headlights look.

        “Branyan makes Rob Deer look like Ted Williams,” a Sporting News writer said during Branyan's Indians days.

        Deer was a 1980s masher whose prodigious power came with a high strikeout rate. Branyan, through 40 games this year, was on pace to strike out a major-league record 207 times.

        The record is 189 by Barry Bonds' dad, Bobby Bonds.

        But now, Branyan is finding a comfort zone that mostly eluded him in Cleveland. Entering Monday, he had started four straight games at third base and was 6-for-14 (.429) in that span. Overall, he has three homers and nine RBI, and is hitting .255 as a Red. That's not exactly Ted Williams territory, but it is encouraging for Branyan, whose career batting average is .227.

        “Obviously, I struggled in Cleveland,” Branyan said before Monday's game. “The change has been great for me.”

        Branyan, 26, never fulfilled his big hype in Cleveland. After the Indians traded Jeromy Burnitz, Brian Giles and Richie Sexson, Branyan was the last young hitter in the Cleveland system with above-average power. He hit 40 homers in the minors in 1996 and 39 more in 1997.

        But in the majors, his massive strikeout rate and the Indians' rebuilding plan finally caught up to Branyan. He was traded to the Reds for outfield prospect Ben Broussard.

        With Cleveland, Branyan was striking out once every 2.5 at-bats. In Cincinnati, the ratio has been trimmed to once every 4.7 at-bats. Not Hall of Fame stuff, but it's progress.

        There were reports that Branyan had a long swing, making him susceptible to breaking balls. The Reds haven't seen it.

        “His swing is fine,” Reds hitting coach Jim Lefebvre said. “I called a guy I knew who had seen him in Anaheim and said, "What's with the swing?' The guy said it wasn't true. But once that (report) gets out there, everybody jumps on the bandwagon.”

        In Cleveland, the fans were on him so badly that it naturally wore on Branyan.

        “I'll just say I'm happy to be out of there,” Branyan said. “Some of the fans got really bad, really dirty. Obviously they wanted me to produce.”

        The Reds believed Branyan just needed to relax and concentrate on making contact.

        “I didn't see anything requiring lots of changes,” Lefebvre said. “He has good posture, good balance. Sometimes you're up there and you get caught up in where are my hands, where are my feet. We said just see the ball and hit it. It's that simple.”

        The Reds' one change was to have Branyan, a left-handed hitter, try to hit some balls to the opposite field.

        “He's going the other way a little, but at the same time we don't want him to give up on his power,” Lefebvre said. “I'm impressed with him; he's very coachable. I think there were just too many things going on in his head.”

        Branyan admittedly wasn't thinking Saturday night, when he failed to run hard on a ball he hit off the center-field wall in St. Louis. He was held to a long single and received a lecture from manager Bob Boone.

        The gaffe wasn't enough to bench Branyan on Sunday, when he went 2-for-3 with two RBI in the Reds' 12-8 comeback win.

        Monday, he wasn't in the lineup. For one reason, Houston started a left-hander in Carlos Hernandez. For another, Barry Larkin returned to start at shortstop, pushing Aaron Boone back to third base. Branyan had been filling in at third while Boone spelled Larkin at short.

        You will see more of Branyan, Bob Boone said.

        “We're going into a real hot (weather) time,” Boone said. “I'll be able to rotate guys, especially with Branyan and (Reggie) Taylor coming through like they have.”

        Branyan was told when traded that he would not play every day. He knows that, but will concede nothing.

        “I want to put myself in a position to play every day,” he said. “I really believe I can, but it won't happen overnight. In Cleveland, I was always looking over my shoulder. Here, I'm really comfortable.”


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