Braun feeds off Phillies fans' boos in 3-HR game

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Braun feeds off Phillies fans' boos in 3-HR game

BOX SCORE

There are a few things to remember when it comes to certain baseball players like Ryan Braun.

One thing to remember is that if you’re at a Brewers game in which Braun is in the lineup, leave him alone. Keep the boos well below J.D. Drew level to something more apt for a Scott Rolen plate appearance.

Sure, go ahead and boo Braun. He knows it’s coming after the long suspension for performance-enhancing drugs he completed last season. But just don’t be overly obnoxious with it.

He likes it too much.

“I try to use it to my advantage,” Braun said.

In Tuesday afternoon’s home opener at Citizens Bank Park, Braun was greeted with over-the-top boos and catcalls that seemed to fuel his obnoxious and over-the-top performance in Milwaukee's 10-4 victory over the Phillies (see Instant Replay). Braun went 3 for 5 with three homers and seven RBIs even though he went into the game with an injured thumb, ugly swings in batting practice and just three hits for the season.

Actually, of all the games to break his season-long funk, Braun was surprised it was this one. During batting practice before the game, Braun said he swung as hard as he could and couldn’t hit one out.

“I don’t think there was any chance I could have a game like this,” Braun said. “The game works in mysterious ways. It was kind of a crazy game and I enjoy this atmosphere and this environment. It’s motivating for me and helps get that adrenaline going.”

Oh yes, the environment. Braun says he is used to hearing fans scream and holler whenever his name is called, and by now it’s nothing more than background noise. But after a series in Boston followed by another at Citizens Bank Park, Braun was like a bear messing with a bees’ nest trying to get some honey.

After a while he doesn’t even feel the stings any more -- the reward is just too sweet.
 
“I love it. It’s great,” Braun said of the negative fan reaction he receives. “Seriously, as a competitor I really enjoy it. It’s a challenging game and it’s a long season and playing in an environment and atmosphere like this is certainly motivating.”

There’s something to that, says Brewers manager Ron Roenicke. Certain players just seem to thrive in contemptuous situations. For instance, Roenicke remembered when he was coaching the Angels and how loud and crazy the fans in Anaheim got whenever Jose Guillen came to town to play.

The louder Guillen was booed, the better he played.

“We were just like, ‘Leave him alone.’ Really. It makes a difference,” Roenicke said. “And those guys who can turn it up, you don’t want to be messing with them.”

Phillies fans messed with Braun, and he’s the one who got into their heads.

“It isn’t anything new to me or anything I haven’t experienced,” Braun said.

No, filling the role of public enemy No. 1 is something he does well. In fact, Braun was first entwined in a PED scandal following the 2011 season when he won the National League MVP award. During the 2012 season, Braun was booed at every stop -- especially Philadelphia -- and turned in a career-best 41 homers, 112 RBIs and a .319 batting average.

Braun’s numbers were enhanced, so to speak, whenever he faced the Phillies. In seven games, Braun hit six homers, drove in 10 runs and batted .519 (14 for 27) with a 1.296 slugging percentage. He went only 9 for 26 against the Phillies last season, but for his career he destroys Phillies pitching.

He has 10 homers in 20 games at Citizens Bank Park and 17 homers with 37 RBIs to go with a .392 batting average (69 for 176) in 44 games against the Phillies. Only two of those homers came against Phils starter Kyle Kendrick, but in going 9 for 19 (.474) against the righty, Braun had little difficulty figuring things out.

Maybe Braun didn’t need to use PEDs. Maybe he just needed to face the Phillies.

“I don’t know [why I hit well against the Phillies]. Obviously this ballpark is good to hit in. That’s pretty well documented, but there’s nothing specific about this team,” Braun said. “I like competing against Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley.”

Chalk it up to the challenging atmosphere and good teams. Considering that Braun has 14 homers in 49 games in Cincinnati and eight in St. Louis -- two of the Brewers' NL Central rivals -- he likes the big stage.

He also likes it when the fans in those places boo him.

“At times, it certainly drives him, no question about that,” Roenicke said. “He’s a special hitter and those guys, when they turn it up, they turn it up.”

Last time it happened ...
The last time the Phillies allowed three home runs in a game to a hitter was May 19, 2011 at Citizens Bank Park against Jason Giambi and the Rockies.

Incidentally, Giambi is a player (like Braun) who was embroiled in a PED scandal. He also hit two of his three home runs that game against Kyle Kendrick.

No splashes, but Phillies significantly upgraded lineup this offseason

No splashes, but Phillies significantly upgraded lineup this offseason

The addition of outfielder Michael Saunders doesn't suddenly make the Phillies an NL contender, but coupled with the trade for Howie Kendrick, the Phils' projected lineup is much deeper and more well-rounded than it was at this time last year.

By adding two capable corner outfield bats, the lineup has been lengthened, and it's unlikely you'll see someone like Freddy Galvis in the five-hole much in 2017.

The Saunders signing is not yet official, but assuming it goes through, the Phils' lineup could look like this on opening day:

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B (S)
2. Howie Kendrick, LF 
3. Odubel Herrera, CF (L)
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Michael Saunders, RF (L)
6. Tommy Joseph, 1B
7. Cameron Rupp, C
8. Freddy Galvis, SS (S)

Considering the Phillies started Cedric Hunter and Peter Bourjos in the outfield corners last opening day, this is a huge upgrade even if Kendrick and Saunders are not huge names. 

Phillies leftfielders hit .212/.284/.332 last season. Unless Kendrick forgets how to hit overnight, he won't come close to those numbers. Phillies rightfielders had eight home runs in 637 plate appearances last season. Give Saunders that many PAs and you're likely looking at 27 to 30 homers.

Before last season, Kendrick hit between .279 and .322 every year from 2006 to 2015. Having a guy who can hit .290 with a .330-plus on-base percentage in the two-hole is a big deal, especially if he's hitting between Hernandez (.371 OBP last season) and Herrera (.361 OBP). You can foresee plenty of scenarios where, if that's the 1-2-3, Herrera comes up with runners on the corners in the first inning.

Saunders is another 20-plus home run bat. When you look through the Phillies' lineup, there are potentially five of those. Plus, don't sleep on the improvement Herrera made in that department last season, almost doubling his HR total from eight to 15.

The balance of left-handed and right-handed bats will make the Phillies more difficult to pitch to. It was important that the outfield bat they added was left-handed, because if not you'd be looking at an extremely right-handed heavy middle of the order.

Also, don't underestimate the impact of adding two veteran hitters who have had success in the majors. Franco could use all the additional advice he can get. Herrera, too, is at an impressionable age. Might Franco be less likely to give away an at-bat, as he did so many times in 2016, with someone like Kendrick there to greet him at the top step of the dugout? That question may sound silly, but the entire environment changes when you add a respected veteran leader to a clubhouse filled with kids.

This is not to say the Phillies will have a top-five offense in 2017. They'll still likely be toward the bottom-half or bottom-third of the National League, but as of right now this isn't the NL's worst lineup like it was for the majority of last season. The Reds and Padres have worse lineups, and you could add the Brewers and Pirates to that list if Ryan Braun and Andrew McCutchen are traded.

Pete Mackanin has called for more offense and more lineup flexibility and he's gotten it, even though it doesn't involve real star power. Kendrick's ability to also play first base and second base could allow Aaron Altherr to get some playing time in an outfield corner when Hernandez or Joseph sits. 

The only real casualty of the Saunders signing is Roman Quinn, who Mackanin confirmed Tuesday night would likely spend the year at Triple A. Quinn showed some flashes late last season and is an exciting player, but it would have been risky to rely on him as a starting outfielder in 2017 given he's never even reached 400 plate appearances in a season. 

Phillie Phodder: Aaron Nola's health, Roman Quinn's status, closer job

Phillie Phodder: Aaron Nola's health, Roman Quinn's status, closer job

READING, Pa. — Perhaps the most important issue facing the Phillies as they get set to open spring training is the health of pitcher Aaron Nola.

It won’t be possible to fully gauge the right-hander’s condition until he starts firing pitches against hitters in a competitive situation in February and March.

But less than a month before camp opens, Nola is optimistic that the elbow problems that forced him to miss the final two months of the 2016 season are resolved.

“I feel like the injury is past me,” he said during a Phillies winter caravan stop sponsored by the Double A Reading Fightin Phils on Tuesday night. “I feel back to normal.

“My arm is all good. One-hundred percent.”

Nola, 23, did not pitch after July 28 last season after being diagnosed with a pair of injuries near his elbow — a sprained ulnar collateral ligament and a strained flexor tendon.

Nola and the team opted for a conservative treatment plan that included rest, rehab and a PRP injection. The pitcher spent much of the fall on a rehab program in Clearwater that included his throwing from a bullpen mound. He took a couple of months off and recently began throwing again near his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

“All through the rehab, I had no pain,” Nola said. “Probably in the middle of the rehab, I started feeling really good. Towards the end, I started upping the intensity a little bit. I knew after I took two months off I was going to be good. I started back up, throwing after Christmas and it felt really good when I cranked up. I’ve been throwing for a few weeks now. No pain, no hesitation. Not any of it.”

The Phillies selected Nola with the seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft with the hopes that he would be a foundation piece in the rotation for many years. Nola ascended to the majors in the summer of 2015 and recorded a 3.12 ERA in his first 25 big-league starts before hitting severe turbulence last summer. He had a 9.82 ERA in his final eight starts of 2016 before injuring his elbow during his final start.

Nola said he would report to Clearwater on Feb. 1. He does not expect to have any limitations in camp.

Manager Pete Mackanin is eager to see what Nola looks like in Clearwater.

“There's a part of me that’s concerned,” Mackanin said. “When guys don't have surgery and they mend with just rest, that makes me a little nervous. I don't want that to crop up again because then you lose a couple years instead of one year. But I defer to the medical people and believe in what they say and how he feels.”

Mackanin said he expected Nola to be in the five-man rotation along with Jeremy Hellickson, Jerad Eickhoff, Clay Buchholz and Vince Velasquez to open the season. Mackanin also mentioned Zach Eflin and others as being in the mix. The Phillies have some starting pitching depth and that’s a plus because pitchers' arms are fragile. Nola was the latest example of that last season. He said he’s healthy now, but he'll still be a center of attention in spring training.

More seasoning for Quinn
Mackanin acknowledged that the addition of veteran outfielder Michael Saunders probably means that Roman Quinn will open the season in Triple A.

“I don’t think it’s in our best interest or [Quinn’s] to be a part-time player at the big-league level, so I would think if things stay the way they are and if Saunders is on the team, I think it would behoove Quinn to play a full year of Triple A,” Mackanin said. “We have to find out if he can play 120 or 140 games, which he hasn’t done up to this point. We hope he can because, to me, he’s a potential game changer.”

Morgan to the bullpen?
Mackanin suggested that lefty Adam Morgan could be used as a reliever in camp. The Phillies have just one lefty reliever (Joely Rodriguez) on their 40-man roster. If Morgan pitches well out of the bullpen, he could be a candidate to make the club. Non-roster lefties Sean Burnett and Cesar Ramos could also be in the mix.

Another chance for Gomez
Jeanmar Gomez saved 37 games in 2016 before struggling down the stretch and losing the closer’s job. Hector Neris finished up in the role.

So how will competition for the job shake out in Clearwater?

“I wouldn’t say it’s wide open,” Mackanin said. “I’m going to give Gomez every opportunity to show that he’s the guy that pitched the first five months and not the guy that pitched in September.”