Ronald Acuña Jr. setting tone for Braves and dominant trio at top of lineup

Padres shortstop Xander Bogaerts (2) gestures after attempting to tag Braves right fielder Ronald Acuna Jr. (13) out at second base in the fifth inning Friday, April 7, 2023 at Truist Park in Atlanta. (Daniel Varnado / For the AJC)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

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Padres shortstop Xander Bogaerts (2) gestures after attempting to tag Braves right fielder Ronald Acuna Jr. (13) out at second base in the fifth inning Friday, April 7, 2023 at Truist Park in Atlanta. (Daniel Varnado / For the AJC)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When he steps into the batter’s box for his first at-bat of the game, Ronald Acuña Jr. is calm and free.

“I just stay very focused,” he said Friday through interpreter Franco García. “I’m not thinking, I’m just trying to have fun.”

To this point, Acuña has been baseball’s best leadoff hitter. In 14 games entering Saturday’s contest with the Royals, Acuña already had nine leadoff hits – three more than Cincinnati’s Jonathan India and Cleveland’s Steven Kwan, who came into the day tied for second. (In this case, “leadoff” is defined as batting first in the first inning, and not simply leading off any inning.)

Acuña, who has been the Braves’ leadoff man in every game this season, has hit two doubles and a home run in this spot. He has walked once. He has not yet struck out. He has scored five first-inning runs.

You can call him the tone-setter.

“No. 1, he can hit the ball 480 feet on the first pitch, and if he hits a single or double, he’s very likely to steal a bag, which makes pitchers uncomfortable, too,” said Matt Olson, who hits behind Acuña. “It’s tough when you’re on the other side and you don’t feel like you can settle into a game, and I feel like when Ronnie is in the box and then on base, it’s unsettling.”

The Braves entered Saturday at 10-4, tied for the best record in the National League. One big reason: They often start fast.

Entering Saturday, the Braves’ 14 first-inning runs were the second most in MLB, behind the 15 for the Dodgers. The Braves scored in the first inning in seven of their 14 games, and were 7-0 when doing so.

The Braves’ lineup is dangerous and deep, but Acuña has been a big reason for their success. As Olson discussed the top of the lineup after Friday’s win, he singled out Acuña, the superstar whose mix of power and speed makes him one of the more dynamic players in the game. Olson and Austin Riley, who bats third, benefit from their leadoff man.

“It sets the tone early,” Riley said. “Our lineup is deep. When he’s going good, even if it’s a single, next thing you know, he can be in scoring position like that. That’s great for (Olson) or for me and for (Sean Murphy), guys that get on base. What he’s capable of doing is special.”

The top three in the Braves’ order for every game has been this: Acuña, Olson, Riley. They have combined to bat .337 with a 1.021 OPS. (That is a higher combined OPS than Nos. 1-3 hitters for any team to this point.)

The Braves’ Nos. 1-3 hitters lead the National League in hits (57, tied for the lead), extra-base hits (21, tied), home runs (11), runs (34) and RBIs (33).

Acuña, Olson and Riley have combined to hit .526 with a 1.706 OPS in the first inning this season – marks that lead the majors. The trio also ranks at the top in first-inning hits (20), extra-base hits (10), homers (seven), runs (12) and RBIs (12).

Acuña has set the tone for a lot of this.

“I mean, your leadoff guy gets on, that’s why you put him up there, so he can do damage and, and get on base, and he’s done a great job of it,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said.

Harris not yet taking batting practice

Michael Harris II, who is dealing with a lower back strain, is eligible to return from the injured list Monday.

It’s safe to assume he will not. Harris isn’t taking batting practice yet.

“I feel good. Getting there,” Harris said Saturday. “Hopefully I’ll be playing (next) week sometime, but feeling good.”

Harris said he expects to begin ramping up in the next few days. He doesn’t know when he might be activated or how long he might take to build up before playing in a game again.

“I don’t really know what the plan is,” Harris said.

He’s received treatment and has continued working in the weight room to try to stay strong until he can get back.

D’Arnaud’s status

It doesn’t seem like Travis d’Arnaud has started ramping up to return from the IL.

“He’s just day to day,” Snitker said. “He’s getting better, but I have no idea.”

He’s eligible to be activated Sunday, but that will not happen. It doesn’t appear that he’s on the trip.

Snitker said that, like Harris, d’Arnaud will begin the build up when the athletic training staff begins to turn him loose, implying that the medical folks have not given the green light yet.

Rain delay

Around half an hour before Saturday’s game was scheduled to begin, the grounds crew rolled out the tarp.

The game began in a delay as a storm hovered over Kauffman Stadium.

The delay lasted 2 hours and 35 minutes before Kansas City’s Kris Bubic threw the first pitch.

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