Fueled by Philly's boobirds, Braun snaps out of slump

Posted: April 10, 2014

THEY BOOED HIM during introductions. They booed the first pitch of his first at-bat, and they booed louder as he trotted back toward his dugout after ending the first inning with a groundout.

Hell, those of the 45,061 who arrived early for yesterday's Phillies home opener even booed Ryan Braun during batting practice, cheered when he dribbled or mishit the ball, which was often.

"I was terrible," the Brewers' tainted slugger said after his historic day yesterday. "I was swinging as hard as I could and I couldn't do anything."

The boos, all of them, seemed low-risk, high-reward. Braun entered the game with a bad right thumb and a .150 average, with speculation already rampant that the nerve damage suffered before his season-ending suspension last year would be the greater impediment to his returning to MVP form than the public-effigy tour that began in Boston over last weekend.

So what happens? Braun hits three home runs for only the second time in his career in yesterday's 10-4 thumping of the Phillies. He drives in a career-high seven runs. In rightfield, he saves his struggling starting pitcher, Kyle Lohse, from a crooked-number inning in the second by diving for a sinking line drive, bad hand and all, with two runners sprinting around the bases.

"I didn't think there was even the possibility that I could have a game like this," he said. "The game works in mysterious ways sometimes."

He did it all amid the same unyielding treatment Barry Bonds used to receive here, under the loud recurrence of boos that once met Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez and any other power hitter suspended or suspected in baseball's better-late-than-ever scrutiny of performance-enhancing drugs.

"Liar," someone screamed when the boos died down once.

"Cheater" could be heard clearly during another lull.

"Today was the worst," said Aramis Ramirez, the Brewers third baseman, who hits behind Braun. "I thought Boston was bad, but here was real bad. They were booing the same way, but it was louder here. The Phillies fans - they can boo some people."

Take it as a compliment. We're better than Boston at something, anyway. The problem comes when it doesn't work the way we want it to, when the athlete has too much Charles Barkley in him and not enough Charlie Brown. On the surface, Braun has always come across as the latter, a guy who needs to be loved and frankly isn't hard to love, either. Isn't that at least part of why he played the victim on the PED charge for a while, conning even close friends such as Aaron Rodgers into believing he was a victim of some sloppy sample handling? Isn't that part of why that silly story even worked?

Isn't that why it made sense that reminding him of all that would have the same effect as Lucy lifting the football on good ol' Charlie Brown?

Except he's not that guy, is he?

"You know, I'm with the Angels a few years back and we let Jose Guillen go," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "And there some negative things that went along with that. And every time he came back in town, our fans would boo him. And every time our fans would boo him, he got a huge hit. And I was, like, 'Leave him alone.'

"I love it," Braun said. "I enjoy this atmosphere, I enjoy this environment. It's motivating for me, get that adrenaline going for me and makes the thumb feel a little better."

Makes the thumb feel better?

C'mon.

"Seriously, as a competitor I really do enjoy it," he said. "For all of us, it's a challenging game and a long season. And playing in an atmosphere like this is something that certainly motivates you."

Stretching back to before that his season-ending suspension in July, Braun had made 76 consecutive plate appearances without going yard. He looked so bad at the plate Friday in Boston that Roenicke gave him Saturday off - even as a DH.

He tinkered with things that day, tinkered again during Monday's rainout, felt like a lost soul in batting practice yesterday. Then the sun broke, the boos came, and he made a catch he had no business making, intensifying the boos from the packed house at The Bank.

His first three-run home run off Kyle Kendrick came after that. The boos got even louder.

Two innings later, he hit a first-pitch fastball over the wall for his second. Louder still.

Four innings later, he turned a 7-4 game into a laugher with the second three-run homer.

It got real quiet after that. Except in the parking lot.

"Really, it makes a difference," said Roenicke, thinking back on those days as an Angel. "Those guys who can turn it up? You don't want to be messing with."

So maybe that's a good piece of advice for fans taking in tonight's game, or the one tomorrow. He cheated, he lied about it, and the validity of his repentance since is a matter of opinion and geography.

But if you think he cares what you think? Well, check the box score from yesterday.

On second thought, don't. It will only make things louder, and quite possibly, worse.


Email: donnels@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @samdonnellon

Columns: ph.ly/Donnellon

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