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Braun fighting through unfamiliar territory

Braun fighting through unfamiliar territory

MILWAUKEE -- A lot of players would be thrilled with a pace that takes them to 24 home runs and 99 RBIs, but not Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun. He set some impossibly high standards during his first three seasons, and for the first time in his career -- the first time in his life, really -- he's been fighting through a stretch resembling a slump.

Willie Randolph knows the feeling.

Randolph, now the Brewers' bench coach, recalls that the first Great Slump of his career came in 1974 at Double-A Thetford Mines, in Quebec. He was 19 and faced a language barrier, gnawing homesickness and what felt like the impossible task of hitting a baseball, all at once. For a time, Randolph was so frustrated he considered quitting the game.

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He pushed through, of course, and went on to be a six-time Major League All-Star. But that slump wouldn't be Randolph's last.

"I've been in slumps where I woke up in the middle of the night in a hotel room and burst into tears, to tell you the truth," he said. "I don't like to admit that. I was in the big leagues, and there I was, crying in the night."

Braun has been down this season, but never even close to that far down. And now he's showing signs of life, coming off a 9-for-14 series against the Cubs in which Braun mostly peppered the opposite field with singles.

If he keeps it up, maybe the rest of the world will stop trying to figure out what's wrong with Braun. He certainly has not been trying to dwell on it.

"I just try to move on, man," Braun said this week at Wrigley Field. "There's no reason to dwell on the past, dwell on what's negative. For me, I try to stay positive, stay optimistic and move forward. I can't go back and get an extra 20 hits or 10 home runs or drive in an extra 30 runs."

If it sounds like he's trying to convince himself, he is.

"Of course it wears on you," Braun said. "Everybody says it doesn't, but it's impossible for it not to. Obviously, I understand where I'm at. Obviously, I'm disappointed in my performance to this point. But I can't go back. I can't rewind time to two months ago and play better."

Instead, here is a snapshot of where he's at: He batted .200 in July and as of Thursday was hitting .286 this season, on a pace for 24 homers and 99 RBIs. He owns a .340 on-base percentage, 19 points below his career mark, and a .465 slugging percentage, 87 points off.

These are by no means poor numbers, but they are also not the numbers Braun says he expects from himself.

Picked fifth overall in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft, Braun needed only 199 games in the Minor Leagues before winning the 2007 National League Rookie of the Year Award with 34 homers and 97 RBIs after a late-May debut. He hit a career-high 37 home runs in '08, including a go-ahead blast in the regular season finale that propelled the Brewers to the postseason for the first time in 26 years. He followed with a career-high 114 RBIs in '09 and led the NL with 203 hits.

In 2010, he's trying to stay positive.

"Because of who I am, because of my personality, I always have to fight the urge to go 4-for-4 with four home runs to make up for where I'm at," Braun said. "That's just who I am and who I'll always be. I don't think it's a bad thing, by any means. I think it's helped me more than it's hurt me. But it's something I have to fight from time to time. ...

"This is the first time I've experienced anything like this. I've never been through it -- not in high school, not in college, not in my year in the Minor Leagues, not in my first three years in the big leagues. It's a learning experience."

The problem is mostly pitch selection, and Braun admits he has been uncharacteristically offering at pitches out of the strike zone. Among those he's gone to for words of wisdom is his bench coach.

"We've talked," Randolph said. "I told him about Derek Jeter, who was something like 0-for-33 [actually 0-for-32, in 2004]. He's Mr. Yankee, and people were booing him in New York, which they never do. He never wavered. He was the same every day. He was as solid as a rock. That's the way you have to be -- play defense, run the bases, make a difference some other way.

"The best thing about Brauny is that he understands that you have to keep it together," Randolph said. "It's easy to get frustrated and mad, but that's not really going to get you through it."

Easier said than done.

"When I came into [professional baseball] I got my butt handed to me right away," said Brewers outfielder Jim Edmonds, in the 17th season of a fine Major League career. "I hit .220 in rookie ball. The one constant in this game is struggle and the key thing is not giving up. Hit, hit, hit, hit, hit, and sooner or later, you'll figure it out."

That's how Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder approached the start of his first full Major League season. He went 0-for-11 with seven strikeouts to begin 2006 before beating the Pirates with a bloop single.

"That's how baseball is," Fielder said. "You can't write it up. Sometimes you struggle, but we have two months left this season and you can't dwell on it."

Braun is following Edmonds' advice: Hit, hit, hit, hit, hit.

"At the end of this year, I'll look back and realize that this was a tremendous learning experience," he said. "Hopefully, I'll become a better player and a better person because of it. But when you're going through it, it's definitely not fun.

"My whole thing is that I have two months left," he added. "If I finish strong, there's no reason I can't have just as good a season I had last year. There's no reason I can't have my best season if I finish great this year. There's no reason for me to reflect until the end of the season."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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