Braves center fielder Ronald Acuna Jr. hits a two-run home run. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Acuna’s lapse in hustle overshadows otherwise audacious performance

No one on the Braves had a more dynamic game Thursday in Game 1 of the National League Divisional Series loss to St. Louis than their young budding star Ronald Acuna. He had a walk and three hits, including a home run and a double. Two RBI. He was by many measures the best player on the field.

And no one had a more maddening moment than Acuna, whose other hit was a seventh-inning drive off the right-field wall. It was a seeming double that he turned into a single by admiring its flight, clinging to his bat three-quarters of the way down the first base line as he leisurely ran.

Welcome to the Braves’ great walking dichotomy.

Here was Acuna’s great talent as well as his single greatest wart on display for all the world on the stage of the Major League postseason. 

No one was talking afterward about the other at-bats, not even the ninth-inning two-run homer that helped make things very interesting right to the end of a 7-6 loss.

No, the prevailing topic was his failure to bust it out of the box in the seventh, when, with how the inning played out, it would have put him in prime scoring position at third base with one out (following a ground out by Ozzie Albies to the right side). Instead, he was eventually doubled off at second following a hard line-drive out by Josh Donaldson.

“It’s a big deal,” Albies said. “He needs to do better there.”

“We probably score in that inning if he’s on second base. It’s a big chance in a tight ballgame.” The Braves were up 3-1 at the time.

Back on Aug. 18, Braves manager Brian Snitker benched Acuna during a game for committing the same transgression. Being an in-game spectator is a most fundamental kind of flaw, when one of the easiest things to do on a ballfield is to run out everything.

Braves center fielder Ronald Acuna Jr. flips his bat after his ninth-inning home run. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

By his postgame comments, it seemed Snitker toyed with the idea of similar punishment. But, as he said afterward, “He should have been on second. And we're kind of shorthanded to do anything about it right there. You hate to see that happen.”

Speaking through a translator, Acuna did not express an abundance of contrition.

In fact, at times, he seemed to be contradicting himself.

“I was trying to give my best effort. It was one of those things I let get away from me,” was one translated response.

Another: “There are a lot of baseball players who give their best effort all the time. But we’re human, we make errors.”

Some of the elders in the Braves clubhouse were obviously irked. Because this is the postseason, and as catcher Brian McCann said, “Ninety feet this time of year is everything.”

“He’s one of the best players I’ve ever seen play the game,” McCann said. “He’ll tell you, he knows he’s got to get to second. He knows that.”

“It’s beating a dead horse if you keep having that same conversation over and over,” first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “You got to know that’s a mistake. That can’t happen in the playoffs – it can’t happen in the regular season. Unfortunately, that happened.”

No one seemed very happy with Acuna this night.

Sure, those in the other dugout were pleased to see him standing on first after hitting one off the wall. “That's huge,” said St. Louis second baseman Kolten Wong. “That's one of the things when you don't run the ball out, you kind of leave yourself in a situation to not really score runs. In any other situation he's standing on second. For him to be on first was huge for us.”

But it was reported that St. Louis reliever Carlos Martinez was fuming by the slow route around the bases Acuna took after his ninth-inning homer. MLB.com’s Joe Trezza reported that Cards catcher Yadier Molina had to visit the mound afterward to calm down his irked pitcher.

Postgame, according to Trezza, Martinez said, “I wanted him to respect the game and respect me as a veteran player.”

Keeping the other team happy is not a big priority for Acuna. But now, pleasing his own certainly needs to be.

The Battery Atlanta was packed Thursday with baseball fans, before the first game of the National League Division Series between Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals at SunTrust Park. Watch as fans declare their fandom for the Braves and one fan offers up prayers for its star players. (Video by Tyson Horne, Kelly Audette, and Ryon Horne)

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