It was the shot heard ’round Braves country.
“I’ve never seen a ball hit so hard in my life,” said Gwinnett Braves shortstop Ozzie Albies, who was standing at first when outfielder Ronald Acuna blasted a 114-mph homer over the left-field wall at Coolray Field on Monday night.
“Most of the time, I’ll go down the tunnel in between innings and cool off and take some deep breaths,” said G-Braves pitcher Lucas Sims. “… I heard his name and wanted to walk over and see. I mean, that’s the kind of attention (Acuna) gets, and he’s a special talent for sure. … When he hits it, it’s like a rocket.”
The 19-year-old Venezuelan phenom is making waves across baseball. Unranked in top-100 prospect listings earlier this year, the youngest player in Triple-A is now a consensus top-10 talent.
Acuna perched on the far end of the bench of the Gwinnett dugout, trying to shield himself from the Georgia heat and at least temporarily, the spotlight Tuesday afternoon. He and his interpreter, Isaac Mendez, soon were encircled by reporters curious about the team’s newest arrival.
Acuna put his arm behind his head, grinning, visibly flattered at questions thrown his way. Nervous chuckling is a universal language. But if Acuna was taken aback, he made it clear he’s not afraid to size-up his competition.
“I don’t feel intimidated,” Acuna said. “We’re in the same category. … I’m just a happy ballplayer, happy to be out there and have fun.
“I’m just a young kid.”
Fun is a facet of Acuna’s game. He’s often clowning with teammates, always laughing, exuding charisma. Even during an 0-for-3 showing that day, Acuna couldn’t help but enjoy himself.
Why wouldn’t he? He’s close to fulfilling a lifelong aspiration.
“You could see it in spring training, the level of competition doesn’t faze him,” former Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. “He’s very confident in his ability to play the game of baseball … The game comes pretty easy to him.”
Jones has long been an Acuna advocate. He visited Coolray Field on Tuesday to watch some of the Braves’ up-and-comers. Acuna’s skill set reminds Jones — and about everyone else — of a longtime teammate: Andruw Jones.
“He reminds me of Andruw at 19,” Jones said. “They don’t do everything alike. I think athleticism-wise at 19 or 20, I give a slight edge to Andruw. I give a slight edge to Acuna in arm strength over Andruw. I think that Andruw was more power-oriented, certainly had the capability of hitting .300 because he did it.”
Jones continued his scouting report.
“But the older Andruw got, he became strictly power-oriented. With Acuna, his bat stays in the zone a long time. I think he’s going to end up being kind of the happy medium guy, a guy that’s going to hit .300, but is going to hit you 25-30 a year.”
Braves first-base coach Eddie Perez played with Acuna’s father, Ron, in Venezuela.
“I saw him a few years ago and he said, ‘My son’s about to sign with the Braves,’” Perez said. “And I said, ‘Oh good.’ I told him we’d take care of him. And I saw him this year again, and I told him, ‘Hey, your kid’s really good. We might be seeing him up here soon.’”
Perez won’t deny reminiscing of Andruw Jones either.
“I want to see him play one year, and then I can tell you that,” he said. “Andruw was special. From what I saw in spring training, (Acuna) is very close. But I want to see him in the (major league) season. I want to see him play — not center field, because we already have Ender (Inciarte) — but I’ve seen him play right field in spring training. He was damn good.”
Andruw Jones has mentored Acuna himself.
“We communicate a lot,” Acuna said. “He actually worked with me back then (spring training), and every time we ever have a chance, we talk about baseball. He’s always more than happy to do so and it’s helped me a lot in my career.”
Calm the hype: Acuna isn’t perfect, and he’s not obliterating baseballs every at-bat. After a quick start since joining the G-Braves, he’s in the midst of a 1-for-13 stretch. He’s hitting .222 in Gwinnett after logging .326 in Double-A Mississippi.
He’s been upper-cutting the ball lately, swinging early and often. He has aggressive tendencies that can hamper unseasoned youth.
“One thing I know about Ronald is that you don’t have to tell him again and again,” Gwinnett manager Damon Berryhill said. “You tell him once or twice, and he’s got it. That’s a good sign for a quality-makeup player.”
Acuna, who has stolen 33 bases this season, is 0-for-3 in Gwinnett.
“Base running,” Acuna said of his biggest weakness. “When I’m at first base, I always get a little anxious about running. So base running is one of the things that I have to work on.”
Acuna confides in Albies, 20, his roommate and best friend. Major league call-ups are a common discussion.
“That’s something you talk about at least once a day,” Albies said. “We talk about baseball and stuff. Like, both of our dreams have been to play in the majors for a while.”
Baseball’s the only sport Acuna’s ever known. His father spent five years in the Mets organization. His uncle, Kelvim Escobar, played in the big leagues for more than 10 years. Alcides Escobar, his cousin, plays shortstop for the Royals.
“Seeing him (Acuna) play is like seeing his dad,” Perez said. “Can hit the ball the other way, great player, nice kid. You know, it’s a big family of baseball people.”
At 6-foot and 180 pounds, Acuna doesn’t have an explanation for his power. He just swings hard and hopes the ball lands somewhere, as he’s joked more than once.
His grace in the outfield hasn’t been seen by a Brave since Andruw Jones. Braves manager Brian Snitker said a scout told him Acuna made the best play he’d seen all year.
Though Inciarte, a fellow Venezuelan, holds down center field in Atlanta,Acuna is just as capable in the corner spots as well.
“I’ve heard a lot of good things about (Acuna),” Inciarte said. “Everybody says that he’s going to be a superstar. I hope he gets to be one. I’ve never seen him play but hopefully he’s able to help us a lot here.”
Getting “here” is heavy on Acuna’s mind, by his own admission.
“It’s always in my head,” he said. “Every time I did better, it always gets to my head. I’m like, one step away to being (with) the big club. So everything is coming to my head so quickly.”
Acuna isn’t alone in anticipation.
“I can’t wait to see him in the big leagues,” Perez said. “I can’t wait to see him every day. He’s still young, we’re not in a hurry.”
Just how soon?
“You never know,” Perez said.
But Acuna is trying to make sure you do and clues like his moonshot homer leave you with little doubt.
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