February 21, 2017

GOODYEAR, Ariz. (AP) Michael Brantley has clashed with self-doubt and depression while pushing his body.

The former All-Star's light is flickering.

Brantley's comeback from right shoulder surgery has been grueling for the Indians' best all-around player, far tougher than he or the team imagined. And as the outfielder battles his way back, Brantley, who played in just 11 games and watched as Cleveland reached the World Series without him last year, has been confronted by his baseball mortality.

''He's had to fight that thought that this injury can win,'' said Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis, among Brantley's closest friends.

As the Indians prepare to defend their AL Central and league titles, Brantley's uncertain status hovers over the talented team's desert spring home like a lone storm cloud on an otherwise clear horizon. Almost every prediction about the Indians is framed with: ''If Brantley is healthy ... ''

An All-Star in 2014, when he finished third in MVP voting, Brantley has not been cleared to swing at pitches, and there's no timeline on when he'll be ready to try pull a fastball into the right-field corner.

The 29-year-old, who initially hurt his shoulder while diving for a fly ball at Minnesota in 2015, was in a similar place last spring as he and the Indians tried to get him ready for opening day. He began the season on the disabled list, joined the club in late April and then suffered an immediate setback as biceps soreness forced a second stint on the DL.

Despite several starts and stops, cortisone injections and therapy, Brantley never made it back. The Indians shut him down on Aug. 3 and he underwent season-ending surgery 12 days later.

Looking back, he grew from the experience.

''I learned a lot about myself,'' he said reflecting on his difficult 2016. ''You've got to be mentally tough. You're going to have good days and bad days, but just stick to the course, stick to the plan, don't try to do too much too early, and it will all come together in the end.''

He believes the worst his behind him, but that doesn't mean Brantley isn't aware of his limitations.

''I wouldn't be standing here in front of you if we didn't have a good game plan going forward,'' he said. ''I'm very excited. I know I said it last year. I'm stronger than I was last year. A lot of things are looking positive. It's a week-to-week basis but things are going on the right foot so far.''

Whether they'll stay there is anyone's guess. Brantley may never be the same player he was just two years ago when he batted .310, led the majors with 45 doubles and played left field at an elite level before that fateful dive against the Twins 17 months ago.

Kipnis knows how deeply Brantley hurts emotionally. While he did all he could to be a part of Cleveland's thrilling ride to the Series, the reality for Brantley was that he was more fan than player.

That pain may have been as intense as any he endured.

''You know he wanted to be out there with everyone,'' Kipnis said. ''He was very mature with putting that to the side. He was a good teammate, helping other people. You'll have bad days in the sense where, it might hurt one day, and he's going to be like, `Oh, no. Not again. Another setback coming.' But he stays as upbeat as he can. He doesn't let it get too deflating if he has a setback, and the guy just keeps moving forward. That's the only thing he can do.''

Indians manager Terry Francona marvels at Brantley's positive persistence.

Brantley may or may not get back, but if he's going down, he'll go down swinging.

''He's an amazing kid,'' Francona said. ''We're pulling for him because of our team and we're pulling for him because we care about him. He's one of the classiest kids you'll ever meet.''

Kipnis can relate to how Brantley's digging in.

''Every time you get injured like that, have something you go on the DL for, you battle that, mentally, and say, isn't going to dictate how my career goes or change the type of player I am. You see the work he puts in every day,'' Kipnis said. ''He is in there every single damn day. You knew he would be. I almost want to say he's going to come out of it, too. Knock on wood.

''Sometimes injuries get the best of people and there's nothing you can do about it. The work he's put in, he'll get back there. He's not taking `no' for an answer.''

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