In the past 110 seasons of the Braves franchise, through its locales in Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta, there had been two players as young as Ronald Acuna to hit a go-ahead home run in the eighth inning or later.
Hank Aaron and Andruw Jones.
That’s the company that Acuna joined when the Braves phenom and the majors’ current youngest player hit a two-out homer to straightaway center field in the eighth inning Tuesday to give the Braves a 2-1 lead over the Cubs at SunTrust Park.
“That’s why I let him play yesterday,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker, who had considered leaving the slumping Acuna out of the lineup for the first time since he was called up from Triple-A on April 25, but decided to give him another day to see if he might do something Acuna-ish.
Acuna struck out, walked and flied out in his three plate appearances before hitting the mammoth homer off Carl Edwards Jr., who entered Wednesday with a .159 opponents’ average, 31 strikeouts in 17 innings and 15 scoreless appearances in 17 games this season.
It was only the second homer off the right-hander in 2017.
“I went back and watched the game and saw some good things tha (Acuna) did,” Snitker said before batting practice Wednesday. “That (homer) right there was huge. That’s a pretty good pitcher he hit that off of, too. Not a lot of guys do that. That’s real encouraging.”
The Braves lost the game 3-2 after Arodys Vizcaino gave up two runs on three hits in the ninth inning. And because they lost, Acuna said through an interpreter: “This moment will stick with me, but at the end of the day it’s not what we wanted, we didn’t win the game. So really, when you think about it, the home run didn’t mean anything.”
That’s not true, of course. The homer could help Acuna shake off his recent slump, and for a while it looked like it would give the Braves a series-opening win against one of the league’s top teams, which would’ve made it two wins in two days against them after the Braves beat the Cubs at Wrigley Field in a makeup game Monday.
Acuna was called to the majors from Triple-A on April 25 and hit .382 (13-for-34) with five doubles, two homers, five RBIs, three walks, eight strikeouts, a .432 OBP and .736 slugging percentage (1.138 OPS) in his first eight games.
But in his past 10 games before Tuesday he hit just .154 with one double, one homer, one RBI, four walks, 14 strikeouts, a .250 OBP and .256 slugging percentage (.506 OPS).
He was in a 6-for-41 slide (.146) before launching Tuesday’s home run to the trees growing in the decorative waterfall-and-rocks area behind the center-field fence at SunTrust Park.
Acuna, at 20 years, 148 days, became the youngest major leaguer to hit a go-ahead homer in the eighth inning or later in nearly five years since Texas’ Jurickson Profar did it to break a 1-1 tie against Kansas City on June 2, 2013.
Jones, the former 10-time Braves Gold Glove center fielder and the player to whom Acuna is often compared, hit two such homers before he was as old as Acuna is now. And the other Braves player to do it at such a young age was the greatest Braves hitter of all, Aaron, who hit two such homers in 1954 as a 20-year-old rookie.
“A hit like that, especially a home run, helps return your confidence,” Acuna said Tuesday’s game. “So hopefully this will kind of help me get things going and get things turned around.”
TV cameras showed him celebrating with several teammates in the dugout after the homer.
“It was very emotional, obviously exciting,” Acuna said a day later. “It gave us the lead but unfortunately it didn’t really matter since we didn’t get the result we wanted.”
He was asked again Wednesday if he’s noticed pitchers approaching him differently the past couple of weeks since his hot start and after teams had a chance to develop more thorough scouting reports on him.
“It just feels like they’re attacking my weak zone. But I’m just there hoping, looking for them to make an error,” he said. “Sometimes I go into an at-bat knowing I need to be aggressive. Sometimes you get the results you want. Sometimes I go in with the mindset that I’m going to take some pitches and see what they’ve got. And so I think those are the results you’ve seen, getting the walks.”