Just as Braves fans dreamed, their Venezuelan center fielder cranked a grand slam to lead their team to a series victory over the Dodgers.
OK, not exactly how they drew it up.
There won’t be many afternoons at SunTrust Park that feature as much drama as Sunday. The Braves fell behind early, benched their MVP candidate and still defeated the NL’s best team, 5-3, thanks to a grand slam from journeyman Rafael Ortega, who had one career homer prior.
“It was a good series win,” manager Brian Snitker said. “You lose the first night and bounce back to have two really strong ballgames like we did, it says a lot about these guys.”
» Michael Cunningham: Message to Acuna, ‘You’ve got to run’
We begin with the headliner: Ronald Acuna had a tough day. It began when leaped at the center field wall, catching a would-be home run by Cody Bellinger, but as he came down and his arm bent over the wall, the ball popped out.
As a result, the Braves were down 3-0 in the first. Acuna threw his glove, an understandable reaction given how close he came to perhaps the best catch of his career.
The day would get worse for the Braves’ 21-year-old superstar. After starter Max Fried doubled in the third, Acuna thought he’d homered over the right field wall. He clung to his bat and admired the shot. Only problem: It bounced off the wall, leaving Acuna at first.
Fried, meanwhile, didn’t round the bases despite the ball clearly being uncatchable. He remained stranded at third. Acuna then attempted to steal second, which would’ve produced his 30-30 season, but was gunned down.
Snitker called Acuna into the dugout steps leading to the clubhouse. The two met for a few minutes and Acuna was removed from the game. The moment has already been likened to Bobby Cox’s benching of Andruw Jones.
In the present day, Snitker saw a similar opportunity to teach a lesson to one of the game’s brightest young players, and so he moved forward with an outfield of Matt Joyce, Adam Duvall and Ortega.
“He didn’t run,” Snitker said. “You have to run. It’s not going to be acceptable here. As a teammate, you’re responsible for 24 other guys. That name on the front is a lot more important than the name on the back of that jersey.”
Acuna handled the situation maturely, Snitker said. He owned up to it, saying through team interpreter Franco Garcia: “There’s no excuse for it, so I just took it and said ‘of course.’ He’s the manager, I’m the player, and I’ll ultimately respect his decision.”
In typical Braves fashion, Ortega, who’d shifted to center in Acuna’s absence, took on the MVP mantle. The Braves loaded the bases against Dodgers rookie Dustin May, who was recently moved to the bullpen. Brian McCann walked, Matt Joyce singled and Adeiny Hechavarria reached for the third time in the game on a hit by pitch.
Ortega, a 28-year-old veteran of seven organizations who’s only in the majors because of an injury flurry, pounded a sinker that didn’t sink into the stands. Amongst the drama of benching Acuna, the Braves had rallied from three down to take a 5-3 lead on the Dodgers.
“It’s incredible, that’s really the only way I can say it,” Ortega said via Garcia. “When moments like that happen, it’s obviously just incredible.”
It came in Ortega’s 114th career game. He’d hit only one homer previously — May 25, 2016, for the Angels — and achieved his only other grand slam earlier this season in Triple-A.
Speaking of which, Ortega was having a phenomenal year on the farm, a career best by his own admission, but the Braves’ rich outfield depth provided little opportunity for a promotion. Ortega still leads the International League in extra-base hits (58) and runs (83).
“He went to Triple-A and didn’t say a word,” Snitker said. “Just had a really solid year down there and got a chance to come up here and contribute, and he got a big hit the other day, won the game for us today, good for him. It shows his professionalism and speaks volumes to the person he is.”
Now depleted by injuries, the Braves turned to Ortega for a regular outfield role. The team has already received unexpected spurts of above-expectation play from relievers Anthony Swarzak and Luke Jackson, outfielders Adam Duvall and Matt Joyce, among others.
“I’m hopeful to continue bringing those (minor-league) numbers, the attitude and the dedication I was showing down there up to here,” Ortega said.
The win awarded the Braves just their second series victory over the Dodgers in 11 years. It was their first series win at home over L.A. since 2013. It was their 25th series victory of the season, surpassing the total of last year’s 90-win club.
And it lived up to the hype of a potential playoff preview, with the Dodgers and Braves owning the NL’s two best records.
Consider the context: They lost the series opener. They defeated nemesis Hyun-Jin Ryu the next night. They overcame a three-run deficit and the benching of arguably their best player to win the finale.
They did it with names such as Adeiny Hechavarria, Joyce and Ortega in the lineup replacing their injured regulars. The team’s depth has taken an enormous step forward from a season ago. You won’t find a better example of that than this weekend.
As the cherry on top, the Braves also received two scoreless frames each from newcomers Shane Greene and Mark Melancon. They led a bullpen that tossed 8-1/3 innings of one-run ball across the past two nights.
“It’s a huge series win,” catcher Brian McCann said. “To get down like we did and fight back, keep them at three runs and hit the big grand slam, I think it was just a huge series win for us.”
The Braves are off Monday before hosting the Marlins for three. Dallas Keuchel, Julio Teheran and Mike Soroka are set to start in the series that wraps up a nine-game homestand.
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