After missing about three months with a lower back injury, Russell Branyan is still working on getting his timing back. The Durham Bulls probably think his timing is just fine.
The veteran slugger belted a pair of three-run homers Tuesday, helping the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees defeat the Bulls, 12-8.
Branyan came into the game batting .182 (2-for-11) in four games with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre after hitting .333 (4-for-12) in three games for Class A Advanced Tampa. The performance raised his average for the season 35 points to .296.
"I've been working on getting back from this injury I had," Branyan said. "I missed all of Spring Training and just joined the team about three days ago in Norfolk. I've really been trying to get my timing and rhythm back. Tonight, I felt a little bit better and got a couple good pitches to hit."
Even if he hadn't missed so much time because of the injury, Branyan's focus would be on finding his groove at the plate.
"It's something that I've really had to work on my entire career, really trying to settle down at the plate and see the ball," Branyan said. "Your rhythm and timing is a key part of that. When you haven't played in a while and get back in the batter's box, guys get a little jumpy. The first thing you're conscious of is trying to slow down, trying to see the ball and maintain your balance."
Branyan got on base once in his first three plate appearances Tuesday, drawing a one-out walk -- his ninth in eight games -- in the first. The 37-year-old first baseman didn't go deep until the sixth, when he sent a 1-1 pitch from reliever Romulo Sanchez over the wall in right-center field. He repeated the feat two innings later against Ryan Reid, taking a 2-2 pitch to left-center.
"One was a fastball in, the other was a fastball middle and up," Branyan said. "The first one, I pulled to to right-center field for a three-run homer. And the other one, I just stayed with the pitch. It was an elevated fastball in the middle and I hit it out."
Through eight games, Branyan's back is feeling good. His main obstacle now is getting back into form.
"[My back is] holding up nicely. I'm feeling good," he said. "Now I'm just concerned with getting back into baseball shape. I spent a long time down in Tampa and extended spring training, rehabbing my back and getting strong and getting supporting muscles strong. Now I'm getting back to the field. I have this program each day for my back, but more importantly, I'm getting back to the field and into baseball shape."
To fully recapture the form that's produced 194 homers in the Majors, Branyan said he has to get through the grinding parts of the season -- nine-inning games, traveling and day games after night games. He already passed one test, playing in back-to-back doubleheaders for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre over the weekend.
"I felt great," he said. "I had the four games in the two days, then an off day Monday. And then we took the bus trip over here and I felt great today. The body's feeling good, my legs are starting to get underneath me and my swing's starting to come around."
Signed by the Yankees in February, Branyan is known for his propensity to hit long home runs -- particularly in the new Yankee Stadium. He's the only player ever to send a homer off the glass facing of the center field batter's eye and was the first to hit one into the upper deck in right field.
How much would he appreciate the opportunity to bat in Yankee Stadium again?
"I'm focusing day to day right now, but my dream is to get back to the big leagues," Branyan said. "I'd be ecstatic if it happened with the Yankees. I signed here for that reason -- I'd like to play for the New York Yankees. I'm getting toward the end of my career, I can see myself playing another three or four years. To have the opportunity to sign with the Yankees and play with them, I'm definitely looking forward to it."