‘It’s way more fun’: Braves’ starter Kyle Wright finally feels comfortable

As Kyle Wright strolled through a hallway in the Braves’ clubhouse Friday afternoon, he noticed something: He felt comfortable.

“I know it sounds weird and dumb,” Wright said. “But in years past, when I was always struggling, I feel like I had to be perfect all the time to stay here. I just feel like I couldn’t relax.”

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Baseball is way more fun for Wright this season. He’s not relaxing or resting on his success to this point. He’s still hungry and seeks to dominate every fifth day.

But he feels different this season.

“I just feel like I’m myself,” Wright said. “That’s kind of freed me up to pitch well.”

Before this interview, Wright spent around 15 minutes signing autographs and taking pictures on the field at Truist Park. He made his way down the entire line and didn’t skip anyone. He owns a 2.68 ERA through nine starts and, at this point, is writing one of baseball’s best breakout stories of this young season.

To do that, he had to experience the doubt, the frustration, the questioning. The search.

He said he often had negative questions floating through his mind: Can I pitch here? Am I good enough to be here? Should I be here? His teammates always supported him, but he felt like he couldn’t steady himself in the majors.

“I just always found myself searching a lot,” Wright said. “Searching mechanically: Is it this, is it that? Am I using the right pitch mix? Am I throwing my best pitches all the time? You’re just watching video, and it’s always like, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ It’s the constant search of: What can I do to perform and succeed on a more consistent basis?

“I kind of felt on an island within myself, trying to do too much and wondering if I could stay up here and pitch up here.”

To himself, those around him and even his critics, he’s provided a resounding example of a complete turnaround. He went from an up-and-down starter to a reliable piece of the Braves’ rotation. He appears to have finally realized the potential that led to the Braves drafting him fifth overall in 2017 out of college baseball powerhouse Vanderbilt.

When Wright evaluates his season, he’s most proud of how consistently he has pitched deep into games. The reason: This covers everything. For a pitcher to go deep into games, he must be putting up zeroes, throwing strikes, keeping counts down and more.

This season, Wright has pitched at least six innings in six of nine starts. In a career that dates to 2018, he had lasted at least six innings only six times before this season (including the postseason).

Wright’s turnaround, he said, began with straightening out his mechanics. He also credits his mindset. Whereas he nibbled too much in previous years, he’s attacking hitters more consistently and is throwing his curveball – his best pitch – more.

He also believes his stint at Triple-A Gwinnett last season served as hitting the reset button. He made mechanical changes and began to see results. The stuff felt better, he threw more strikes, and got more swings and misses.

He entered this spring training with a great attitude.

“I felt like myself,” Wright said. “I felt like I was as good as anyone.”

Over the season’s first couple of months, he has proved as much. He’s grateful for everyone who stood by his side when he struggled.

“I’m proud of everyone, proud of myself for sticking with me,” Wright said. “It’s cool that I’ve been able to pitch as well as I have so far. It’s still early, so still got a lot of work to do. But just being able to be as comfortable and relaxed as I am, it helps me get things done that I know that I can do and it just frees me up to get out here and compete.”

Baseball feels different this year.

“It’s way more fun,” Wright said.

Acuña returns to spark Braves

Based on what manager Brian Snitker told reporters before the game, it didn’t appear like Ronald Acuña would play on Friday.

In a surprise, Snitker used Acuña as a pinch-hitter in the seventh. The outfielder laced a two-out, run-scoring double that tied the game. It sparked a three-run inning that helped the Braves win the game.

“I think that’s just the kind of energy you learn to have,” Acuña said through interpreter Franco García. “It’s your own style of playing and, for me, I think it’s the energy that I try to bring to the ballpark every day, and I hope that energy transfers or is contagious to your teammates.”

Acuña (right quad strain) ran the bases Friday. He was not in the starting lineup and Snitker said the Braves will evaluate him before Saturday’s game, as they’ve been doing daily.

It seemed as if Acuña was out for the third consecutive day. Instead, he helped the Braves beat the Marlins.

Olson battling to escape slump

Matt Olson began this season on a hot streak, but has slumped recently.

Entering Friday’s series opener, he was batting .251 with an .819 OPS this year. But since April 24, he was hitting .185. With a .671 OPS.

“He’s coming around,” Snitker said. “Like I said early, I didn’t expect him to hit .450. Everybody goes through ruts, and he’s fighting and working his tail off to get back.”

The encouraging signs: Olson homered Tuesday and doubled twice Thursday.

He went 0-for-3 with a walk Friday.