Ronald Acuna begins (potentially brief) rehab assignment

Gwinnett Stripers vs Columbus Clippers.  (Photo: Karl L. Moore)
Caption
Gwinnett Stripers vs Columbus Clippers. (Photo: Karl L. Moore)

Credit: Karl L. Moore

Credit: Karl L. Moore

Ronald Acuna, donning his major-league helmet, returned to Triple-A Gwinnett on a rehab assignment after only 29 major-league games.

Friday marked the first game action for the top prospect in almost a month. He went 0-for-2 in a rain-shortened debut at Coolray Field.

Acuna hit the disabled list May 28 after sustaining a sprained knee ligament and knee and back contusions while running through first base in Boston.

He’s repeatedly stated he believes he could handle live games, even as early as the day he was placed on the DL. But the Braves have played it cautiously, in part because of his propensity for exhausting full effort on every play.

Acuna, 20, started in left field and led off for Gwinnett in Game 1 of a doubleheader against Columbus. He registered two at-bats before the game was delayed in the third inning.

The Stripers intended to give him five innings, but lifted him after a lengthy delay so he wouldn’t need to get stretched out again.

Acuna grounded out to third base on the sixth pitch from Clippers starter Matt Whitehouse. He hustled down the first-base line without any limitations.

He assembled a seven-pitch, bases-loaded at-bat with two outs in the next frame, sending one deep to the center-field warning track.

“I felt good, thank God,” Acuna said through team interpreter Franco Garcia. “Everything felt normal, how it should be. I was able to run. It felt good.”

Acuna isn’t sure how long he’ll be on assignment. He acknowledged “speculation” that he could return Monday, but manager Brian Snitker indicated there’s a week-long plan for him if required.

He’ll be evaluated day-by-day. Acuna will play the outfield and serve as designated hitter in the next two weekend games.

“We have him mapped out through the end of next week,” Snitker said. “Whether or not he stays there that long, we’ll just have to monitor how he’s doing and what they see there. But there’s a long-term plan for him.”

Acuna won’t be evaluated on his production, Snitker continued, as is often the case with rehab assignments.

“I don’t think results will be anything to do with determining (when he comes off DL),” he said. “It’s health and how he looks running the bases, coming out of the box, things like that. I don’t think he, at this point, needs to get results. If he’s getting the at-bats and is healthy, then that’s all I’m worried about.”

The Braves first put Acuna through vigorous base-running drills June 16. The team wanted to see him working at maximum speed and cutting around the bases before determining the next step.

He spent part of the past week in Orlando working out at the team’s spring training facility. John “T-Bone” Shelby, minor league outfield and base-running coordinator, supervised his athletic testing.

Acuna credited Shelby and others around the organization for guiding him through his recovery.

“It’s part of the process,” he said. “It went really well, and I’ve got a lot to be thankful for, guys to thank down there. They’re the reason I’m doing well, all the guys who’ve helped throughout the process. They’re the reason I’m doing as well as I am right now.”

The Braves entered Friday with a National League-high 43 wins. They’ve done so while receiving minimal help from a player many believe is the game’s best prospect, and one who figured to be an important cog in the team’s lineup.

Acuna debuted April 25 in Cincinnati, collecting his first hit before homering the next day. He’s hit .265 with five homers, 13 RBIs and 19 runs scored in 29 games.

His delayed debut was slowed because of performance and service-time reasons. The Braves gained an extra year of contractual control by leaving Acuna in the minors until April 13.

And he wasn’t forcing their hand: Despite an exceptional spring training, Acuna hit .232 with one homer and two RBIs in 17 games with Gwinnett before his promotion.

Acuna flashed moments of brilliance in the majors, and is a clear asset on defense and on the base paths even when his bat is cold. His return will add another dimension to what’s already proving a dangerous group.

Donning his Braves helmet during a rehab assignment is symbolic of Acuna’s emphatic eagerness to return to the everyday lineup. But he’s liked what he’s seen from his first-place club as a spectator.

“It’s a great feeling,” he said of the team performing well in his absence. “They were doing great when I was there and when I wasn’t there. So it’s great to see them continue that. We’ve all worked really hard to maintain that energy and environment that we have within the team, so it’s been great to see.”

Some believe Acuna’s injury was influenced by his “safe” motion while running full-throttle through first base. It’s a gesture he’s made throughout his career, and it isn’t uncommon among major leaguers.

The prospect rejects the notion that it was even partially responsible for the injury, but added he’d cease if asked.

“I don’t think the injury happened from that,” he said. “I’ve always done that and I know everyone likes to say that’s the root of it, but to be honest I don’t think that’s what it is. But if I get asked to stop doing it, I’ll stop doing it.”

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The Braves signed top prospect Ronald Acuna, of Venezuela, in 2014.

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