Brian Snitker said after Thursday’s Game 1 of the National League Division Series that he hadn’t “had an opportunity to talk to anybody yet.” By anybody, he meant Ronald Acuna. By the time Snitker briefed the media Friday afternoon, that had changed.
“It was a good conversation,” the Braves manager said, and from his stern visage we can assume that “good” might have been a bit of a euphemism. Fifteen hours later, Snitker was still ticked, as evidenced by his next words:
“It’s not the first time, obviously.”
As the world saw or has since learned, the most gifted young player in the sport did the same thing in a playoff game Thursday that got him benched when he did it against the Dodgers in August – he hoisted a mighty blast that wasn’t quite as mighty as he believed. By the time his drive glanced off the wall, as opposed to soaring majestically over it, Acuna had dallied too long to make it beyond first base.
Snitker was miffed when it happened seven weeks ago. He was beyond miffed at its recurrence – especially since Acuna wound up not scoring in seventh inning of Game 1, which the Braves lost by one run. “He should have been on second (base),” Snitker said Thursday. “And we’re kind of shorthanded to do anything about it right there. You hate to see that happen.”
Other Braves seconded their manager’s emotion. Said Freddie Freeman: “I think you have that conversation once. You kind of beat a dead horse if you have the same conversation over and over again.”
Said Ozzie Albies, Acuna’s best friend among Braves: “It’s a big deal. He knows he needs to do better there.”
Through an interpreter, Acuna said afterward that, if he had it to do again, he’d have run harder. He also said, “Things like that happen,” which seem to indicate that this “thing” – not hustling – was beyond his control. On Friday, his manager refuted that notion.
Snitker: “It's the same conversation I've had with him before. The two things that you can control in this game is your effort and hustle, how you play the game. Those are controllable parts of this game. There's a lot in this game that you can't control. You can control that.”
Then: “It's a shame that myself and his teammates have to address this. We shouldn't be talking about this. It was a great comeback. He had a great evening. We should be talking about that, not addressing this issue.”
Acuna had three hits and drew a walk in Game 1. His diving catch of Kolten Wong’s sinking liner ended the second inning. His two-run homer off Carlos Martinez in the bottom of the ninth halved the Braves’ four-run deficit. And yet: Two innings after drawing the ire of his manager and mates for an absence of effort, Acuna stopped to behold this drive, too. Then he flipped his bat and pointed to the Braves’ dugout. When finally he entered the dugout, he was met with as muted response as you’ll see for someone who has just given his team a ninth-inning chance in a game gone wrong.
Asked how he felt about Acuna’s post-homer display, Snitker said: “That bothered me a little bit, too.”
It didn’t bother him so much that Acuna’s name wasn’t the first on the Braves’ Game 2 lineup card. To bench a team’s most talented player in October would be unfair to the other Braves. But it will be a while before Snitker – or anyone associated with the Braves – forgets the doings of Thursday night.
That said, Snitker has long been Acuna’s biggest booster. When he was hit with the first Marlins pitch of a game in August 2018 – Acuna had been on one of his leadoff-homer tears – Snitker was ejected for his insistence that Miami pitcher Jose Urena be tossed. (Which Urena was.) Speaking of Acuna afterward, Snitker was near tears.
Snitker that night: “He’s my kid. I’m going to protect him. … I’m not sure I’ve ever felt like that in a baseball game. That was just my emotion. That kid didn’t deserve that … There was just no reason for a young man to be hit like that when all he’s doing is just playing the game. He’s not doing anything to show anybody up. He’s playing the game.”
Here was Snitker on Friday. “My gist of (his message to Acuna), without expanding on anything, is I'm not going to give up on this kid. I'm going to go to the end of the earth trying to help this guy. (He needs to) understand the responsibilities of where we're all at. It was a good conversation.”
Not to get sappy here, but the roughest part of seeing Acuna neglect to exert himself was imagining it through Snitker’s eyes. Here’s a Braves lifer – he’ll turn 64 in two weeks – who never played in the majors. Much of Snitker’s time in this organization has been devoted to teaching younger players how to be a big-leaguer. Now he has maybe the most heralded young Brave ever, and he’s having the same conversation in October, of all times, that he has had before.
On a personal level, Snitker was asked, did he feel let down by Acuna? His response: “I don't know that I feel that. I'm disappointed more than personally let down, I think.”
Acuna is good enough to win this series almost by himself – almost, but not quite. The trouble with being able to do everything on a baseball field is that you can fall into the trap of believing you’re allowed to do anything you want. If those words sound familiar to faithful readers, it’s because I wrote them after Acuna was benched in August. The belief was that the 21-year-old would learn from his mistake. Turns out he didn’t.
Today, however, is another day, and it brings the chance to right the wrongs of Thursday night. And with that I’ll leave you with one last thought: Brian Snitker is a prince of a man; I’d hate to be the guy who does let him down.
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