The Marlins’ - or rather, an individual’s - attempt at slowing Ronald Acuna was an outdated means of getting even, a gesture that needs to be left behind if baseball hopes to progress.
And it still didn’t work: The Braves won 5-2. But the actual game was overshadowed by what occurred during the home team’s first plate appearance.
Acuna entered Wednesday on a near-unprecedented run. He homered in five consecutive games. He had eight homers in his past eight contests. He’d hit three consecutive leadoff homers, one shy of tying the MLB record, each against the Marlins.
The 20-year-old stepped up to the plate aiming for history. He instead received a 97-mph fastball to his left elbow from Marlins pitcher Jose Urena.
Benches cleared, with Ender Inciarte leading the way on the Braves’ side. Manager Brian Snitker won’t be seen more animated and angry than he was in that moment. He barked furiously at Urena and the umpires. Coaches from both teams held him back.
“I think it’s pretty evident what I thought about it,” Snitker said while delivering a passionate and emotional postgame interview. “That’s a shame. This young man is just playing the game, doing what he loves to do. It’s a damn shame what happened that first pitch of the game.”
Meanwhile, the Braves’ phenom remained on the ground. Team trainers checked on Acuna, who sat silently holding his elbow as chaos unfolded nearby.
Acuna elected to stay in the game. He stopped on his track to first base and tossed his shin guard on the mound. First base coach Eric Young Sr. was retrieving it when Urena shook his head and appeared to make a comment.
Snitker visibly blew up again, causing a second bench clearing that brought out both bullpens and led to his ejection. Young appeared to shove Marlins third baseman Brian Anderson, but he was not ejected.
“It was more just ignoring the warning to help,” third-base umpire Paul Nauert told a pool reporter regarding his decision to eject Snitker. “In his position, we’re looking for people to help us and not to escalate it. I told him and he said, ‘I don’t care.’ So, it is what it is and he understood.
“I think everybody had their chance (to express displeasure) and then when it seemed to die down, it kind of re-escalated again.”
As the action settled, the umpires threw Urena out as he was warming up. Marlins manager Don Mattingly exited the dugout to aggressively plead his case. He wasn’t tossed. Bench coach Walt Weiss took over as Braves manager while Snitker watched from the tunnel and his office.
“He’s my kid,” Snitker said of Acuna. “I’m going to protect him.”
Urena is the fourth starter since 1920 to hit the only batter he faced in a game. Each of the four were ejected. His only pitch was the fastest first-pitch of his career.
The Marlins starter has a past hitting batters, but that - nor Acuna’s streak - was relevant to Nauert’s decision.
“When we go out to the game, we take each game as it presents itself,” he said. “Today, the first pitch hits the kid the first time up. I think from what has transpired over the past three days, the crew felt that it was intentional. So, the action we took was to eject him.”
Urena was defensive after the game. He insisted he didn’t understand why the Braves were upset. His justification is his first pitch is always inside, and that one tailed inward.
The Braves, nor anyone else, will buy that proposition.
“They ultimately made the right decision,” Snitker said. “It was obvious that was intended to hit him. There’s no reason for a young man to be hit like that when all he’s doing is playing the game. He’s not doing anything to show anybody up. He’s playing the same. As I’ve said, he’s a young talented kid. That’s a shame that happened.
“What happens if they hit him there and he breaks his elbow, and he’s done for the year? With what we’re trying to accomplish here, where we’re at, there’s no reason for that. Heck, this is a game. My God.”
Acuna took left field at the top of the second but notified the coaches he couldn’t stay in. He removed himself, glancing at the Marlins dugout midway through his walk while the SunTrust Park crowd hallowed him with a standing ovation.
“He’s playing the game the right way,” first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “He’s having fun. He’s done nothing wrong in his four months in the big leagues. He’s brought joy to this game. Everybody loves watching him play. People are paying just to come watch this kid play. For what he did tonight is not right.”
The Braves did not retaliate. A recurring theme in the clubhouse was the team’s focus on winning and the bigger picture (pennant race). The teams meet again next weekend in Miami.
“If you watch Jose pitch, every first pitch of every game is pretty much there,” Mattingly said. “We talked to Jose after the game. He’s saying he knows the guy had been swinging the bat good and he tried to get one close, run it in there, and that was the purpose of his pitch.
“This kid’s swinging the bat pretty good. We’ve got to find a way to get him out. What we said with Jose is, we don’t want to see this kid get hit. He’s a great player, and he’s going to be great for a long time. For us, he’s beat us up. But this was not the way we want to handle that situation. It’s not something we represent or believe in as an organization. I’d never want that kid getting hit and cause that kind of problem.”
Acuna’s X-ray results were negative. He took a CT scan Wednesday night, and the Braves will announce the results Thursday. His homer streak remains intact, according to Elias Sports Bureau, because he didn’t register an at-bat. He was unavailable to the media following the game.
“Obviously he’s been doing pretty well against them,” said starter Kevin Gausman, who gave the Braves six innings. “I think (Urena) decided he was going to handle it a certain way. I don’t agree with it, but it’s his career and he’s going to have to deal with the consequences.”
Wednesday was another example of why baseball’s old code should be abandoned. It’s unclear if Acuna will miss time, but there was no benefit to hitting him. It’s a needless move, one that serves no purpose other than expressing disdain and jealousy for someone else’s success.
As the sport tries to evolve, and especially reach a broader audience, the “unwritten rules,” as they’re popularly called, should be left behind. The move achieved nothing but casting a cloud over one of the game’s most compelling national stories, and forced his team into an unnecessary bullpen game.
“It was gutless,” Freeman said. “I know that wasn’t the Marlins. That was just Jose Urena. I don’t understand it. It makes no sense. Just because a player’s having fun playing the game, swinging the bat incredibly well obviously, it makes no sense. That was completely classless on Jose Urena’s part.”
The Braves completed the four-game sweep. Dansby Swanson gave them their first lead with a two-run homer in the fourth.
When he was crossing home plate, he bumped his chest twice, put his finger on his lip and pointed to the sky – Acuna’s cadence. Swanson laughingly said that’s just seen less often from him because of their power discrepancies.
“Everyone knows the emotions and reactions,” Swanson said. “You go into protect mode because that’s family. I think everyone’s able to see that. What I was most proud of was the ability to bounce back after and keep our composure.”
The win bumped the Braves to a season-high 17 games over .500, their best mark since 2013. They might be playing their most complete baseball of the year. They sit second overall in the National League.
But that’s overshadowed by Acuna’s fate. The leadoff star engineered the Braves’ latest surge, and despite optimism as of midnight, the team will stay anxious because of a struggling pitcher’s foolish action.
“If you don’t want him to hit your fastball, throw a breaking ball,” Snitker said. “There are ways to get the kid out. You throw fastballs down the middle and he hits them out. What do you expect the kid to do? My God. That was just completely, unbelievably uncalled for.”
Snitker deferred to the league office when asked if Urena warranted a suspension. His MVP candidate was less coy.
“It was clearly intentional,” Freeman said. “It wasn’t right and hopefully some things are done about it.”
Just another reminder that baseball’s run out of room for such nonsense. The Braves will eye the next day, a wisdom they’ve maintained during the season. But there’s no doubt extra attention will sit on the next Miami series right around the corner.
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