Acuna’s injury makes bad Braves series worse

Atlanta Braves' Ronald Acuna Jr. grabs his left foot after falling in the seventh inning of a baseball game against the Toronto Blue Jays Thursday, May 13, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Credit: AP

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Atlanta Braves' Ronald Acuna Jr. grabs his left foot after falling in the seventh inning of a baseball game against the Toronto Blue Jays Thursday, May 13, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Credit: AP

There was some positive news for the Braves on Thursday. The X-rays on Ronald Acuna’s left ankle were negative, and Ender Inciarte is available to fill an outfield position. Their superstar player seemingly suffered only a minor injury, and the guy who’s hit .229 since the start of 2019 is a better option than top prospect Christian Pache.

That’s the best I can do for a sunny outlook for the Braves after the Blue Jays completed a three-game sweep at Truist Park. The Braves lost 8-4 after the bullpen surrendered five runs over the final two innings. Acuna and Pache left the game with injuries. Maybe it’s best for the Braves that they left town for Milwaukee after the game.

Acuna hit his majors-leading 12th home run on the first pitch he saw from Ross Stripling. His play has been one of the few unequivocally good things happening for the Braves this season. The rest of the list includes right-hander Huascar Ynoa surprisingly becoming a second reliable starter, and ... well, that’s about it.

The Braves have been resilient while winning three consecutive National League East titles. Losing Acuna for a significant amount of time would just be too much. It doesn’t appear that will be the case. Manager Brian Snitker said Acuna is day-to-day. Acuna suffered the injury when he took an awkward step over the bag while hustling for an infield hit in the seventh inning.

The Braves (17-20) presumably will have their best player back in the lineup soon. They are scheduled to play three games at the Brewers, who’ve won three of their past four games after losing six in a row. The Braves will send out No. 1 starter Ian Anderson and Ynoa for the weekend games. That means they should have a good chance to win the series, but by now it’s clear that there’s no telling with these Braves.

The Jays handed the Braves their third three-game sweep of the season. The Braves also have swept two opponents. The Braves hit when they don’t pitch and pitch when they don’t hit. They are still only four games behind the Mets in the NL East, and New York comes to town Monday. But the Braves are supposed to be a World Series contender, and they’ve rarely looked that way through six weeks of the season.

I predicted the Braves were on the verge of busting out at the plate three weeks ago. Two days later, they failed to score a run over 14 innings of a doubleheader loss to the Diamondbacks. Then the Braves pounded out 26 runs while winning three of four games against the Cubs. They kept scoring against the Blue Jays in their next series, but were swept because their pitching faltered.

Next, the Braves swept the Nationals on the strength of good pitching. They took two of three games from the Phillies with good hitting. Then their bats went quiet again in the rematch with the Jays, who scored 43 runs in six games against the Braves.

A team that goes too long repeating the pattern of plugging one hole only to spring another just isn’t a good team. It will take a larger sample of games to reach that conclusion about these Braves. There’s also the weird quirk that six of their 20 losses are against the Blue Jays.

Some Braves fans already are worried about their team. Reliever Will Smith said the players aren’t down.

“The mood is that we are a good team,” Smith said. “It’s a clubhouse full of professionals that are going to get it done. We don’t try to freak out over anything. We look at the big picture and just keep your head down and keep working. That’s all you can really do.”

The Braves were close to salvaging a victory against Toronto when Acuna went down. Dansby Swanson’s two-run homer in the sixth off reliever Tim Mayza put them ahead 4-3. Reliever Chris Martin came off the injured list and provided an immediate boost with a perfect seventh inning. Snitker had his two best relievers, Smith and A.J. Minter, available to finish the game. And the Braves had hitters Nos. 2-4 due up in the eighth.

It started unraveling for the Braves when Minter issued a leadoff walk in the eighth. Cavan Biggio followed with an RBI double. Luke Jackson replaced Minter and preserved the tie with a one-pitch out. But Braves slugger Freddie Freeman flied out before Marcell Ozuna walked and then was left stranded by Ozzie Albies and Ehire Adrianza.

Smith recorded only one out the ninth as five of the six batters he faced got a hit. Smith was charged with four runs, same as he allowed over 15 previous outings this season. Smith hadn’t given up as many as four earned runs in a game since September 2018. With the way the Braves are going, maybe it was inevitable that he would have his worst results in 86 appearances since then.

The way the game ended meant the Braves could hardly enjoy the good fortune of Martin’s return and the pending arrival of Shane Greene to help their bullpen.

“We are throwing the ball well,” Smith said of Braves relievers. “It’s just when you are on the back end and give it up, it seems to stick out more.”

Sure, but that comes with the job description. Braves relievers had the fourth-worst ERA in the NL before Thursday’s games. Bullpen depth looked to be an area of weakness for the Braves after they declined to sign Greene and Mark Melancon during the offseason. That’s how it’s turned out.

The Braves are supposed to have enough offense to overcome lackluster pitching. Braves relievers would have had more leeway Thursday if Braves hitters did more against a vulnerable pitcher. Stripling used to be good for the Dodgers. They traded him to the Blue Jays in August for two minor league players.

Stripling had a 6.62 ERA in four previous starts this season, with only one as long as five innings. The Braves scored two runs against Stripling over 4-1/3 innings May 2. This time they got four hits and two runs off him in the first inning, then no more of either over the next four. The home crowd was sleepy until Swanson’s homer in the sixth provided some excitement.

The ballpark was quiet again when Acuna went down. At least those X-rays were negative.

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