PEORIA, Ariz. – Braves super prospect Ronald Acuna did a lot of exceptional things on his way to becoming Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year in 2017, but something he didn’t do was hit two home runs in a game.
He did that Friday.
The 19-year-old Venezuelan phenom hit a pair of tape-measure homers to center field for the Peoria Javelinas during a 9-8 win against the Salt River Rafters in an Arizona Fall League game at Peoria Sports Complex.
Acuna also hit a line drive that tore the glove off a third baseman, nearly stretched a double into a triple on a line drive to right-center, and raised his batting average to .366 and his OPS to 1.123 with his second consecutive three-hit game.
But it was the two homers – one a towering shot that hit the left side of the batter’s eye backdrop, the other a low-liner past the right side of the backdrop -- that had some scouts in the stands glancing at each other and a few smiling and shaking their heads. As if to say, this kid is special.
“I’ve had four or five multiple-home run games, but it was pretty good doing it against this level where the competition is pretty good,” Acuna said through an interpreter.
He has consecutive three-hit games and three homers with five RBIs in his past three games, after going homer-less in his first nine games in Arizona.
“I think God, No. 1,” Acuna said. “And I feel that an adjustment I made is starting to show up now. I feel really comfortable at the plate, and that’s the result.”
Both home runs were up the middle Friday, and his homer Tuesday was an opposite-field drive to right off Pirates No. 2 prospect Mitch Keller.
“I always look to hit the ball to the middle and opposite field,” Acuna said. “I feel more comfortable doing that, and that’s what I look to do every time. Eventually I take advantage if the pitcher makes mistakes.”
A smooth-striding, outstanding defensive center fielder, Acuna is not built like a prototypical power hitter. There’s no bulk or bulging biceps, lats or traps. He’s a wiry 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds, a mass of fast-twitch muscle wielding a quick bat that gets to pitches high and low and uncoils with ferocity.
He has 29 home runs in 236 games (1,208 plate appearances) over parts of three minor league seasons, but no multi-homer games in the minors.
Acuna ascended from highly regarded by the Braves to arguably the No. 1 prospect in all of baseball during his terrific 2017 season, starting out at high-Single A and actually hitting better at each of the next two levels, including .344 with nine homers and a .940 OPS in 54 games at Triple-A Gwinnett.
The youngest player in Double-A and Triple-A, he finished the season with a collective .325 average, 31 doubles, eight triples, 21 homers, 82 RBIs, 44 stolen bases and an .896 OPS in 139 games.
He was the second-youngest player on either roster Friday. And even in a game that featured plenty of elite prospects, Acuna stood out with his combination of speed and power, not to mention the sensational attempted diving catch he nearly made in the left-center gap.
At the plate, his day went like this:
-- With one out and none on in the first inning, Acuna fouled off each of the first three pitches he saw from right-hander James Needy (Marlins), then homered to center field on the fourth, a majestic shot that one writer who covers the AFL on a regular basis said went higher than any ball he's seen hit this year.
-- With two on and one out in the second inning, he hit a line drive with such force that it tore the glove off third baseman Ryan Mountcastle, and the Orioles prospect scrambled to pick up the ball and run gloveless to the base just ahead of the runner for the out. "Yeah, it was smoked," Mountcastle said.
-- In the fourth inning, Acuna lined a one-out double that was fielded by center fielder Braxton Lee toward the right-center gap. When Acuna noticed Lee go back to field the ball safely instead of coming forward to get it a few steps earlier, he didn't hesitate and continued sprinting as he rounded second base to try to stretch it to a triple. Throws to the cutoff man and to third base were strong, but Acuna still made it a close play, sliding hands-first and getting tagged on the hip for an out that likely would've been reviewed if there was video replay in the Arizona Fall League.
“I’m not going to change my game -- I’m an aggressive player, I’m going to continue to play like that,” Acuna said. “I’m always looking forward to taking an extra base, and I’m going to continue doing that.”
-- With one out in the sixth, Acuna again fell behind in the count 0-2 against righty Jorge Ortega (Brewers) and fouled off the third pitch before homering on the next. Again it was a mammoth shot to center, this one on lower arc, sailing to the right of the batter's eye onto a grass berm beyond the outfield wall.
-- In the eighth, a moral victory for Salt River pitching: Acuna had a routine ground out.