And Thursday afternoon, wearing a gold Trae Young Hawks jersey with gold Nikes, Acuña walked into Truist Park. He had been here since the injury, but this time he arrived to play a game.
“It felt just like when I got the call to the big leagues,” Acuña said. “Same exact feeling.”
The team activated Acuña for Thursday’s series finale versus the Cubs. The Braves needed a roster spot to reinstate Acuña from the injured list, so they designated outfielder Alex Dickerson for assignment.
Acuña was batting leadoff and in right field for his season debut. He will be off Friday after the team’s late travel night to Texas. He won’t play the field on travel days or in day games following night games. He won’t play every day until the 12-month mark following the injury, which would be at some point in July.
The outfielder said he felt he could play a nine-inning game by the second week of spring training. He added he understands it wasn’t his decision.
Now he’s back. And as talented as he is, his presence also will provide a boost to the Braves.
“It’s huge, what he brings to this team and has ever since he has been here,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “I think it makes all those guys in there feel whole again.”
Since the start of spring training, the Braves kept something in mind: They would eventually have Acuña back. Even as they started the season a bit slowly, they knew the superstar outfielder soon would provide them a lift. That time has come.
It seems Acuña beat the projections for his return. The Braves had used May 6 as a loose target date for him to join the club. As of Tuesday, they had said he would play seven innings in right field Wednesday and nine Thursday before they decided his next steps.
He instead played a full nine Wednesday. He went 2-for-5 at the plate, which made his batting average .368 for his rehab assignment with Triple-A Gwinnett. Overall, he was 7-for-19 with an RBI, three stolen bases and four runs in six rehab games. He posted a .941 on-base plus slugging percentage.
The Braves had seen enough. Snitker said that, with Acuña scheduled to play nine innings in Gwinnett on Thursday, the club figured: Why not have him play at Truist Park?
“Motivated? Yes. But I would say probably more excited,” Acuña said of his mindset. “It feels like being called up to the big leagues again.”
The Braves could have continued to tread water without him, but they needed him now. Eddie Rosario on Wednesday underwent a laser eye procedure and is expected to miss eight to 12 weeks. This left the Braves trying to piece together right field until its star returned.
The Braves have not received much production from the bottom of their lineup, and inserting Acuña should strengthen the order as a whole. His return is expected to improve the overall outfield defense. He’s also a threat on the bases. He possesses all five tools.
Since his debut in 2018, Acuña has hit .281 with a .925 OPS. He’s never had an OPS lower than .883 over a season. Three years ago – his last full season – he launched 41 home runs. Acuña has won two Silver Slugger Awards and has twice been named an All-Star.
The first five in the Braves’ lineup now looks like this: Acuña, Matt Olson, Austin Riley, Marcell Ozuna, Albies.
“That’s kind of a gauntlet, when you put (Acuña) up there, and those first three of four guys, that’s pretty tough sledding for four times through the order,” Snitker said recently. “I think that presence and a guy like that in the lineup is huge. It’s huge when you miss somebody like that.”
In activating Acuña, the Braves lost Dickerson. This means Guillermo Heredia and Travis Demeritte are their backup outfielders. Dickerson was 4-for-33 with a home run, but probably hit some balls harder than the results showed.
As Acuña progressed through his rehab assignment, you perhaps wondered whether he would be ready sooner than May 6. Could he join the club in New York on Monday? Asked about potentially returning for that Mets series, the 24-year-old outfielder said: “If it was up to me, I’d be ready tomorrow. Whenever they say it, I’ll be there. It’s their call. It’s not my call.”
As it turned out, that call came for him to be ready tomorrow (Thursday). The Braves went 8-11 without Acuña, but now their star player is back.
“The season’s just barely begun, and it’s not about how you start, it’s about how you finish,” Acuña said. “I think this team’s doing well. I think we’re going to keep continuing to grow and develop as a team and as teammates. From my perspective, I was itching to get back in there and I was dying to get back with the team. But I just had to wait until they told me it was time.”
Manny Piña heads to the injured list
Snitker said catcher Manny Piña’s left wrist took a beating warming up a pitcher between innings and when he caught Sunday’s game against the Marlins. He is headed back to the injured list, retroactive to April 25, with left wrist inflammation.
“He doesn’t have any strength, so he’s going to need some time to let that thing calm down,” Snitker said.
The Braves recalled catcher William Contreras from Triple A for the final game against the Cubs, the team for whom his brother, Wilson, plays.
TBA listed for Sunday starter
Ian Anderson is pitching Friday’s game in Texas. Bryce Elder will go on Saturday.
The Braves have Sunday listed as a “TBA” -- to be announced -- in their game notes. That would have been Max Fried’s day, which leads you to wonder if Atlanta will save him for Monday’s game versus the Mets in New York.