The Braves’ path back to relevancy has been paved by a 20-year-old who’s just being a kid.
It took only one swing to put Ronald Acuna into the record books again. This time it was his first multi-homer game, a four-RBI effort that gave the Braves a 10-6 win over the Marlins.
“I never have (seen anything like it) in my lifetime,” manager Brian Snitker said. “Freddie (Freeman) and I are sitting there looking at each other like ‘My God. Are we really seeing this?’ And the explosions when he hit them, too.”
» Photos: Ronald Acuna homers, yet again
Acuna attacked the first pitch he saw, then proudly watched the ball fly over the left-field wall while he casually flipped his bat. He admitted he was a little nervous, though anyone who’s encountered Acuna would have difficulty placing that concept.
It was Acuna’s third consecutive leadoff homer, one shy of tying a major-league record. It was his fifth consecutive game with a home run, becoming the youngest to do so in MLB history.
He went opposite field in the seventh, a three-run detonation that had everyone at SunTrust Park questioning how the Marlins could still be serving him hittable pitches.
“I feel like this is the first time I’ve been ‘hot hot,’” Acuna said through team interpreter Franco Garcia. “It feels good. You show up with a lot of confidence.”
Marveling at Acuna is becoming a nightly venture. Snitker moved him to leadoff after the All-Star break, a decision that may have altered the season’s outlook. A decision that could be revisited years down the road as the choice that put the Braves back into October, a month that once provided guaranteed baseball.
The Braves had the worst leadoff production in the bigs. Snitker shuffled hitters in and out of the spot. Acuna had been sidelined for a month after a nasty fall, and nothing about his numbers since returning suggested he should be hitting first.
But Snitker decided to test Acuna as a spark plug. It may go down as the best move of his managerial career: The rookie has posted a .358 average with 12 homers in 24 games, though even those numbers can’t fully illustrate his impact.
“It’s been amazing how he’s been a different guy,” Snitker said. “The whole approach. The at-bats where it seemed like he was striking out looking a lot. His eye is like I remember it in spring training. He brings a lot to the game. He’s a middle-of-the-order bat probably, but in the right situation, man it’s nice to have a guy like that leading off.”
Acuna was hyped more so than perhaps any Braves prospect in recent memory. The three regular-season weeks leading to his arrival were bombarded with questions of when he’d get the call. Meanwhile, he was slumping in Triple-A.
That feels like an eternity ago. His sights are now on forcing the Braves into the playoffs; a laughable premise in March that has grown more real with every one of Acuna’s 19 home runs.
“It’s a joy to watch him play,” said Ender Inciarte, who Acuna displaced at leadoff. “He’s so special. I just tell him, ‘God blessed you with this ability, so stay humble and keep doing what you’re doing because you’re going to make a lot of people happy for a long time.’ … He’s just having fun, you see him smiling. It’s contagious what he’s doing. His energy all the time.”
It’s not just the homers, on-base skills or base running. The youngin’ is setting the tone for an offense that dragged in the days before the All-Star break, when the Braves lost eight of 11 and some believed the inevitable collapse was occurring. Maybe it was.
Then came Acuna, the prospect who apparently drained divinities from the baseball gods and rescued the Braves. He’s homered in five consecutive games, equaling a franchise record. He’s the youngest player in MLB history to accomplish such.
Acuna jumped on the railing, yelling and vibrantly smiling when Charlie Culberson homered on the second pitch of the game. He brings an unprecedented youthful energy that carries an osmosis effect. He’s transferred it to the lineup, he’s transferred it to the clubhouse.
His defense should place multiple Gold Gloves on the shelf. His presence at first induces a peripheral glare in every pitcher’s eye. His power channels memories of the steroid era without, well, the extra juice.
“When I saw him in spring training, what he was doing at such a young age, probably the most impressive player I’ve seen,” Culberson said. “It’s hard to say. I’ve played against (Mike) Trout, saw him in spring training. He’s probably the best player I’ve played against. But Ronald’s doing some pretty amazing things right now.”
He’s becoming a mega-star. He’s entertaining. He’s marketable. His team is winning. This sport needs more excitement, says the prevailing thought. It needs to connect with the younger audiences.
Acuna has been gift-wrapped to the baseball – and sports – world. MLB is increasingly flushed with young studs, but none may hold Acuna’s lure.
No, he isn’t in New York or Los Angeles; he doesn’t need to be. He could make the Braves as nationally pertinent as they’ve been since the TBS days.
“He’s the best leadoff hitter I’ve ever seen,” said Inciarte, who added he can’t take his eyes off the plate when Acuna’s up. “He’s the best player I’ve ever seen. He’s unbelievable. Hopefully he’s going to continue to help us in the long run because we just want to go to the playoffs, and he’s a big part of where we are right now.”
So often we look back on the early years of Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones, Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Cabrera and other historically dominant hitters who remind us how beautiful the art of baseball can be.
The Braves are witnessing the birth of an elite five-tool player. One who might even live up to his lofty expectations. Few modern athletes beyond LeBron James and Bryce Harper can lay claim to such distinction.
SunTrust Park was treated to a show Monday and Tuesday. If it’s treated to postseason baseball, Acuna will be at the forefront of reasons why.
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