Was Braun's gesture a shot at Phillies fans?

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Was Braun's gesture a shot at Phillies fans?

It's a good thing Ryan Braun is embracing the role of the villain in road parks, because he'll be receiving thunderous boos in every stadium he visits this season.

And, along those lines, it's probably a good thing for him that the Brewers traveled to Citizens Bank Park so early in the season, because it's hard to imagine Braun getting louder jeers than he's received from Phillies fans this week.

"I try to use it to my advantage," Braun said of the boos after Tuesday's Brewers win over the Phillies. "I love it. It’s great. 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."

The boos continued Wednesday night after Braun's three homers in the series opener. And if you thought maybe, just maybe, they were getting under his skin after three strikeouts in four plate appearances in the middle game of the series, Braun's two-run triple in the eighth inning squashed that idea.

"Well I struck out three times today," said Braun when asked about his 39 RBIs in 45 games against the Phillies. "You just continue to compete. I'm friends with Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins and those guys, so I've always enjoyed competing against them."

Braun made an emphatic gesture after reaching third base, putting two fingers in the air in the direction of the crowd. The safe assumption was that it was directed at his Brewers teammates, but an assumption wasn't safe given the context of these two games and Braun's three previous lousy, frustrating at-bats.

"No [it was directed] to our dugout, we always do that when we get big hits," Braun said with a smirk. "We've done that forever, we just haven't had an opportunity to play too many good games, close games, exciting games."

It's been an exciting few days for the Brewers' disgraced perennial MVP candidate. Braun was suspended 65 games last season for his connection to the Biogenesis scandal, and that was just one calendar year after he tested positive for an elevated level of testosterone but walked on a technicality.

Braun's fierce denial of the initial positive test and eventual suspension are the main reasons for all the boos. But that's what makes the reaction in Philly so interesting -- most of it is based on baseball fans' disgust, but some of it is also based on respect for his game.

Braun has absolutely destroyed the Phillies. He's played 45 games against the Phils and has driven in 39 runs. He's played 76 games against the Braves and Mets combined and he's driven in 42 runs.

Braun entered this series with zero RBIs. He now has nine. And that's with a balky thumb that has caused chronic pain. "I've talked about it enough, I wish it would just go away," he said of the injury.

As far as the destruction of Phillies pitching ...

"Obviously it's a great ballpark to hit in," Braun said after Milwaukee's 9-4 win (see Instant Replay). "I enjoy competing against these guys. Aside from that, I don't know -- small sample size, anything can happen."

Best of MLB: Masahiro Tanaka throws shutout; Yankees top Red Sox, 3-0

Best of MLB: Masahiro Tanaka throws shutout; Yankees top Red Sox, 3-0

BOSTON -- Masahiro Tanaka pitched a three-hitter to outduel Chris Sale and earn his first shutout since 2014, and the New York Yankees beat Boston 3-0 on Thursday night for their fifth straight victory over the rival Red Sox.

Tanaka (3-1) struck out three and threw only 97 pitches for his fifth career complete game and his 10th win in 11 decisions dating to last season. Aaron Hicks had two hits and scored twice, and Matt Holliday had two hits and two RBIs.

Tanaka retired the last 14 batters he faced and only allowed one runner to reach second base.

Sale (1-2) allowed three runs -- two earned -- and eight hits in eight innings, striking out 10 and walking none. He joined Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens and Jon Lester as Red Sox pitchers with 10 or more strikeouts in four straight starts (see full recap).

Urias makes solid 2017 debut as Dodgers beat Giants in 10
SAN FRANCISCO -- Run-scoring singles by Andrew Toles and Justin Turner in the 10th inning led the Dodgers to a 5-1 victory Thursday against the San Francisco Giants after Los Angeles pitcher Julio Urias made a solid start in his 2017 debut.

The Dodgers, who had lost to the Giants in 10 innings the night before, loaded the bases with no outs in the 10th on two walks and an infield hit. Toles followed with a tie-breaking single, Kike Hernandez had a sacrifice fly and Turner extended his hitting streak to 13 games with an RBI single. Chris Taylor drove in the fifth run with a bases-loaded walk.

Kenley Jansen (1-0) got the win, striking out the side in the ninth inning, as the Dodgers managed a split of the four-game series. The loser was Cory Gearrin (0-1), who walked the only batter he faced leading off the 10th inning.

Urias allowed one run in 5 2-3 innings after being recalled from Triple-A Oklahoma City before the game (see full recap).

Harper homers in 11-run 7th, Turner, Nats rout Rockies
DENVER -- Bryce Harper hit a three-run homer as part of an 11-run seventh inning, Trea Turner had another big game at Coors Field and the Washington Nationals routed the Colorado Rockies 16-5 on Thursday.

Turner proved to be a pitcher's nightmare throughout the four-game series. He hit for the cycle on Tuesday, finished a triple shy of another cycle Wednesday and added a double and two singles in the finale -- in all, he had nine extra-base hits, scored 10 runs and had 11 RBIs.

Washington finished 9-1 on its road trip, taking three of the last four at Colorado. What's more, the Nationals scored 11 or more runs in three straight games for the first time since July 1986 at Atlanta, when the team was the Montreal Expos.

Leading 4-2, the Nationals broke the game open in the seventh by sending 15 batters to the plate and pounding out eight hits, including Harper's eighth homer.

Gio Gonzalez (3-0) pitched in the seventh and also drove in two runs.

Rockies rookie Antonio Senzatela (3-1) took the loss (see full recap).

Lindor's 2-run blast in 7th leads Indians past Astros
CLEVELAND -- Francisco Lindor hit a long two-run homer in the seventh inning to lift the Cleveland Indians over the Houston Astros 4-3 Thursday night.

Lindor's 456-foot homer off Chris Devenski (1-1) landed in the visitors bullpen about 50 feet beyond the center field wall.

Corey Kluber (3-1) struck out 10 and allowed three runs in seven innings as the defending AL champs took two of three from the AL West leaders.

Edwin Encarnacion and Abraham Almonte also homered for Cleveland, which has won seven of nine.

Marwin Gonzalez homered, and Evan Gattis and Alex Bregman each had an RBI single for the Astros, who have the second-best record in the AL (see full recap).

Hellickson, Neshek get huge outs in Phillies' 6th straight win, but now comes the hard part

Hellickson, Neshek get huge outs in Phillies' 6th straight win, but now comes the hard part

BOX SCORE

With Kendrick Lamar's "Duckworth" blaring through the clubhouse speakers, a spirited Phillies team fresh off a six-game winning streak packed its bags for a daunting road trip.

The Phils, 11-9 after Thursday's 3-2 win over the Marlins (see Instant Replay), begin a three-game series at Dodger Stadium Friday night before heading to Wrigley Field for four games with the reigning champion Cubs. 

After that, they play six of their next eight games against the Nationals, who have the best record in baseball and the top three RBI leaders in the majors so far this season.

On the one hand, you want to face these teams when you're hot. On the other hand, we saw what happened late last May when the Phils took a 25-19 record into a nine-game run against the Tigers, Cubs and Nationals that effectively ended their season.

"What a great homestand to leave on," manager Pete Mackanin said. "That was fun. We're coming together as a team."

The Phillies are winning in many different ways right now. They're hitting homers, getting solid starting pitching and effective bullpen work. Three of these six straight wins have been in one-run games.

On Thursday, Jeremy Hellickson handled the free-swinging Marlins yet again. He had a 2.01 ERA against them in six starts last season and carried that success into this start, allowing one run on seven hits with no walks over six innings.

Hellickson has walked just three Marlins in 46 1/3 innings the last two seasons.

"Hellickson, this guy, sometimes I watch him pitch and when he's doing it right, it looks like he's just playing catch with the catcher," Mackanin said.

It's interesting that Hellickson has had this much success early without striking anyone out.

"I've never struck that many guys out," said Hellickson, who did admit he's a little surprised his numbers have been so stellar without the benefit of a few more K's. He's struck out just 11 of the 115 batters he's faced in 2017.

But Hellickson's 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA and 0.80 WHIP through five starts. His pace is slow, but his outs are quick.

The key spot for Hellickson came in the fourth when Martin Prado and Christian Yelich began the inning with singles. Runners were on the corners with nobody out and Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and J.T. Realmuto coming up.

But Hellickson got his only strikeout of the afternoon in that spot, whiffing Stanton, who continues to have relatively quiet games against the Phillies. Ozuna popped out and Realmuto lined out to end the threat.

Hellickson retired all three of them on changeups, his go-to pitch that has legitimately become one of the best pitches in baseball.

Hellickson entered Thursday's start with the fourth-lowest opponents' batting average (.155) on his changeup of any major-league starter since last season. He got seven more outs with that pitch against the Marlins.

You don't often see — in fact, you rarely ever see — a right-handed pitcher turn to his changeup against righties, especially with men in scoring position. Typically, a right-handed changeup is used as an out-pitch against lefties because it fades down and away from them. 

But Hellickson's is so good that he's OK throwing it to any hitter in any count.

"Bob McClure and I had that conversation in the early part of last season," Mackanin said. "I didn't understand it. I told Mac, 'I'm not crazy about right-on-right changeups.' He said, 'Pete, it's such a good changeup that he gets people out with it.' I said OK, I'll defer to you on this one. 

"And as the season went along, he was right. If you've got that good of an arm action on your changeup that deceives the hitters and the movement, you can get anybody out with it."

Offense for the Phillies wasn't plentiful but it was enough. They scored a run on Dee Gordon's first-inning error, a second after Freddy Galvis' one-out triple in the third, and the deciding run came on Brock Stassi's RBI triple in the sixth.

That was all they needed because of another strong effort by Hellickson and the relievers behind him.

Hector Neris picked up his third save with a 1-2-3, seven-pitch ninth inning. Joaquin Benoit had a perfect eighth inning with two strikeouts. 

But sidewinding Pat Neshek picked up the biggest outs with men on base in the seventh inning of a one-run game. The inning ended with a weak swing by Stanton, who punched out with two men on.

It came just a couple weeks after Neshek made Yoenis Cespedes look silly after numerous other Phillies pitchers were victimized by the Cuban slugger.

"For the most part," Neshek said when asked if his deceptive delivery plays better against big, right-handed power hitters. "There's some guys like Adrian Beltre that just destroyed me. But yeah, I like facing big righty guys. That's kind of what I've done all my career."

"It's very important," Mackanin said of Neshek's deceptiveness. "The biggest thing about that is hitters don't see that very often. They don't see it all the time. If they saw it all the time, it would be less imposing. But when you have to change your eyesight down to knee- or ankle-level, it's very disruptive. The deception is what gets you out.

"That was huge. You know what Stanton's capable of doing and Neshek just did a fine job on him. For whatever reason, we seem to make a lot of quality pitches against that guy."

Indeed they do. Now they hope to make some quality pitches against Corey Seager, Justin Turner, Adrian Gonzalez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Daniel Murphy over the next two weeks. 

If they don't, all the positivity of this six-game winning streak will be but a distant memory by mid-May.

"I'm obviously pleased with the performance of the players," Mackanin said. "We've just got to continue that for a little bit longer than we did last year."