Ronald Acuña Jr. returns from brief absence in rough loss for Braves

Ronald Acuña Jr. returned from his two-game convalescence Monday night after he felt tightness in his right calf muscle on Friday night against Miami. Running the bases and defending right field at Truist Park, he bore the appearance of a man whose worries did not include either calf muscle.

However, as far as highlights for the Braves go, that accounted for much of any fervor at Truist (save the pre-game raising of the National League East pennant, courtesy of pitcher Charlie Morton) as they dropped their fourth game in a row following their lost weekend in Miami.

The Braves lost 7-1 to Philadelphia as the pitching staff continued its funk since the club clinched its sixth consecutive National League East title on Wednesday against the same Phillies.

Since champagne bottles were emptied and cigars smoked, the Braves have been outscored 43-14. The Marlins and Phillies have combined to hit .345 with 15 home runs in those four woebegone contests while the Braves have managed to hit but .239 with seven homers.

As they account for 3% of the season’s games, finding a panic button to smash – or even politely tap – is premature.

For one thing, the MVP candidate Acuña has returned to the lineup. Manager Brian Snitker said Monday afternoon that Acuña was declared fit to return after testing his calf earlier in the day. Snitker said his hesitation to play him in the final two games of the series at Miami lay more with the artificial turf of the Marlins’ loanDepot Park, the same sinister surface upon which he tore his ACL two years ago, than with the health of his calf muscle.

Monday, back safely on the manicured natural grass of Truist, Acuña was 1-for-4 in the leadoff spot. His only hit was a line-drive double into left-center in the bottom of the sixth for which he accelerated while rounding first and arrived at second standing up. He was tested once in the field, ranging far to reach a foul pop in the top of the seventh.

It was not a terribly eventful evening for Acuña, who perhaps could use a slow night. Since Aug. 28, he has been rushed on the field by two fans in Colorado, got married and hit a grand slam to become baseball’s first player with 30 home runs and 60 stolen bases on the same day in Los Angeles, hit nine home runs, stole seven bases, helped his team clinch the division and, lastly, missed his first games of the season after his calf tightened up.

After Acuña’s final bat in the bottom of the eighth, Snitker did elect to sit him for the remainder of the game, sending in a defensive replacement for the top of the ninth. Asked if he did so to keep his star off his feet, Snitker agreed with the premise, an indication that he remains mindful of his superstar’s health.

It does raise also the question, though, of how critical it is to play Acuña. He didn’t take out any other players to take them off their feet. But the Braves, while having won the division, still have goals to achieve, namely earning the best record in the National League and overall to receive homefield advantage in the postseason. The lead over the Dodgers for the top seed in the National League looks relatively safe at four games (prior to the conclusion of Los Angeles’ game Monday night vs. Detroit on the West Coast). For the overall top seed, though, Baltimore closed the gap with the Braves to two games with a ninth-inning comeback against Houston Monday night. Both teams have 12 games remaining. The Dodgers have 13 after Monday.

Acuña’s value to the Braves can be explained in any number of ways, starting with his 37 home runs and 66 stolen bases. Another is this. Since the start of the 2022 season, the Braves are 179-88 with him in the lineup (.670) and 18-27 without him (.400), though he has only missed two games this season.

And now, they could use him to avoid their first five-game losing streak since September 2017. They are the only MLB team to not lose five in a row since the start of the 2018 season.

This is the fourth four-game losing streak of the season, contrasted against eight winning streaks of four games or better. After the first three four-game slides, the Braves went 8-2, 6-4 and 6-4, respectively, over the next 10 games.

The bullpen has become a primary worry. Since the start of September, Braves non-starters through Sunday had the highest ERA in the majors (6.79). Through August, the Braves were third at 3.43.

However, it does bear mention that, while it’s easy to think of this season as a start-to-finish joy ride, there have been a few spots where the joy was a little more thinned out.

The Braves started out 18-9 in March and April, then eased off in May (15-14). Then came the scalding June (21-4) followed by a July that was above-water but not transcendent (13-10). They surged again in August (21-8). And now, through 16 games in September, they’re even at 8-8. Perhaps the remainder of the month will continue apace, although seven of the 12 remaining games are against the dirge-worthy Nationals. It could leave the heat to come back on in October.

“We’ll get through it,” catcher Sean Murphy said. “There’s no panic, no worry. You don’t want it to ever happen, but it does over the course of 162 and it’s happening right now. A couple more weeks to iron things out and we’ll be alright.”

A heated-up and healthy Acuña would be a most helpful wrinkle-remover.