Ronald Acuna opened the scoring in the third with a two-run homer, his 40th. He became the third player in MLB history to hit 40 home runs before 22, joining Mel Ott (1929) and Eddie Mathews (1953). Only Ott, 20, was younger.
In doing so off Phillies starter Aaron Nola, Acuna became the 12th Braves player to reach the 40-homer mark. He’s the first since Andruw Jones, who belted 41 homers in 2006.
“It means a lot to me,” Acuna said via team interpreter Franco Garcia. “To be compared to superstars and Hall of Famers like that at such a young age, it’s - ‘wow.’ It’s a motivator as well.”
Acuna is three steals shy of the fifth 40-40 season in MLB history. He downplayed the idea of him pressing, saying the chase isn’t producing any added pressure. He’ll have eight games to join that exclusive club.
“I never really focus on that kind of stuff,” he said. “I’ve never felt any pressure to get there. If I hit that home run, great. If I didn’t hit it, I didn’t hit it. If I steal the bases, I steal them. If I don’t, I don’t.”
Manager Brian Snitker, meanwhile, felt it did Acuna well to get that elusive 40th homer out of the way. It was his fifth homer since Aug. 16, a span in which he’s hit .197 over 31 games.
“He’s human,” Snitker said. “When he hit it, I told (hitting coach Kevin Seitzer) he might relax now and really go off. Just get that out of the way. It’s got to weigh on you. As much as you don’t want it (to be at the front of your mind), it is. I’m sure every time he rolled over at night and woke up, it was all he’s thinking about.
“I’m happy for him. That’s an unbelievable accomplishment at this stage of his career. Hopefully he exhales a bit and you never know. He might just go off.”
As for the rest of the offense, Austin Riley would later homer, padding the Braves’ lead that was provided by Freddie Freeman’s two-RBI single. The offense did it without staples Josh Donaldson and Dansby Swanson, who received rare days off.
Braves center fielder Ronald Acuna Jr. (left) and left fielder Adam Duvall celebrate their win 5-4 over the the Philadelphia Phillies. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
The Braves’ bullpen, which entered the game with a 10-inning scoreless streak, allowed two runs but protected the lead. Shane Greene pitched his way out of danger in the eighth, permitting a run but preserving a lead before Mark Melancon notched a 1-2-3 ninth.
If the Braves defeat the Giants on Friday, they’ll officially win the NL East. Mike Foltynewicz, who started the Braves’ clincher last season, will oppose Tyler Beede. The Braves could also clinch if the Nationals lose in Miami (the games are to be played simultaneously).
“That’s the most exciting thing up to this point,” Acuna said. “That’s what we’re all looking for. So we’ll just come out with that same energy, same enthusiasm, get that win and hopefully celebrate. That’s what we’re all looking forward to.”
And it’s worth adding that Acuna, now old enough to legally enjoy an alcoholic beverage, is extra enthusiastic to experience a celebration in which he isn’t limited.
“Last year felt like they wouldn’t let me drink,” Acuna said with a teeth-shining grin. “But this year is going to be different. That’s not the case. We’re looking forward to it.”