Following shoulder surgery, how did Houston Astros star Michael Brantley fare in his first professional game of 2023?
Sunday afternoon, overcast skies, a slightly chilly temperature, and the wind blowing out to right field welcomed the Sugar Land Space Cowboys, featuring a special guest appearance by Houston Astros left fielder, Michael Brantley. Rain drops and an aura of cautious optimism for Brantley's appearance filled the air among the 5,000-plus in attendance in Sugar Land.
Inside the stadium, I could feel the crescendo of excitement building among fans as the umpiring crew took opening lineup cards some 30 minutes after the game's delayed start time. Finally, they would see Brantley in action. Ever so fortuitously, hours of rain gave way to calm skies just in time for a 2:38 p.m. first pitch. And Brantley took to the field.
Brantley’s plate appearances
In his first trip to the plate, Brantley received rousing applause from Astros faithful in the Houston suburb located just 20 miles from Minute Maid Park. Batting in the two-hole against the Las Vegas Aviators—Oakland’s Triple-A affiliate—the five-time All-Star did not swing through five pitches, showing his vintage plate discipline.
Quietly, the lefty masterfully worked the count to 3-2 against right-handed starter, Drew Rucinski. Brantley then exploded on the sixth pitch, pulling Aviators’ second baseman, Zack Gelof, hard to his right. Brantley initially appeared to line out to the middle infielder. However, the umpiring crew huddled together to determine if Gelof caught the ball cleanly, or merely entrapped it after it had already hit the ground.
Brantley—calm, cool, and collected—confidently waited at first base, foot anchored to the bag, perhaps knowing what others did not. Amidst the confusion, Rucinski threw warm-up pitches. Minutes later, the crowd cheered as the three-man crew ruled Brantley safe via an infield single.
During the bottom of the third, Brantley faced Rucinski again. The 14-year veteran walked on four pitches, ultimately advancing to second base before the inning drew to a close on a fly out.
Brantley, a 14-year major league veteran, not only holds an impressive .298 career major league batting average, but a significantly above average .993 career fielding percentage as an outfielder.
Throughout the first four innings, Brantley received no action in left field from opposing batters. Nevertheless, Brantley’s throwing arm appeared lively during pre-inning warm-up tosses, hitting Space Cowboys' center fielder, Michael Sandle, consistently in the chest from about 120 feet away.
The five-time All-Star finally saw defensive action during the fifth inning while fielding a line-drive single. Brantley’s throw to his cut-off man, Dixon Machado, stayed low and true, providing further evidence that his throwing velocity and upper body torque do not appear affected by the shoulder surgery on his non-throwing arm side—good signs for Astros faithful.
Though lauded for his on-field performance, Brantley always adds value. In the top of the fifth, Brantley appeared ever the team player, recognizing his shortstop, Machado, who snared a screaming line drive heading for the left-center gap on a full-effort vertical leap, saving a would-be base hit from heading Brantley’s direction.
Following the well-executed play, Brantley—having already sprinted in from left field to play the ball—faced Machado and emphatically clapped his left hand into his glove, sending a message of praise and encouragement to the Triple-A shortstop. Even in a Triple-A game, Brantley’s leadership remained on full display. And the message was clear—major league game or not—Brantley is hungry and all about helping the Astros' organization be its best. Not above playing in a minor league park for a rehab assignment, you could tell what team means to him. And championship players don’t always tell you—they show you. Between his play and his mentality, Brantley is one of the most potent threats in major league baseball.
Exiting before the top of the sixth, Brantley finished the afternoon logging five quality innings in the outfield, going 1-1 at the plate via an infield single, and reached on a walk. Eight months removed from his right shoulder's arthroscopic labral repair, in his first professional game back he contributed more than his fair share—one of the mere six hits the Space Cowboys managed to muster on the afternoon. One day at a time, as they say—but for the Astros lefty, it could not have gone any more smoothly.