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Acuna Jr.'s slam helps boost Braves to first place

Albies homers twice, Markakis reaches milestone against Bucs
@mlbbowman
June 11, 2019

ATLANTA -- Ronald Acuña Jr. hit his first career regular season grand slam and Freddie Freeman extended a power surge that has positioned him to realistically think about his first 40-homer season. These home runs, combined with the pair Ozzie Albies hit from the left side, backed the strong relief

ATLANTA -- Ronald Acuña Jr. hit his first career regular season grand slam and Freddie Freeman extended a power surge that has positioned him to realistically think about his first 40-homer season.

These home runs, combined with the pair Ozzie Albies hit from the left side, backed the strong relief effort Sean Newcomb provided while helping the Braves claim a 13-7 win over the Pirates at SunTrust Park on Monday night and move into first place in the National League East for the first time this season.

Grand slams mean 30% off pizza

But the postgame champagne toast the players shared in the clubhouse had nothing to do with moving into a first-place tie with the Phillies. It was reserved for Nick Markakis, who tallied one of the Braves’ season-high five home runs, as he enjoyed a four-hit night and became just the 251st player in Major League history to reach 1,000 RBIs.

“It just shows all the hard work you’ve put in,” Markakis said. “It also shows you get older, too. The later you get in your career, these things happen. It was a good night.”

Box score

It was certainly an eventful night that included the Pirates losing starting pitcher Joe Musgrove in the first inning. Musgrove grazed Josh Donaldson’s jersey with a 94-mph fastball and then shared a heated verbal exchange with the Braves’ third baseman, who was also tossed after this fiery exchange led to some pushing and shoving when the benches cleared.

Here are the three takeaways from a night filled with fireworks:

The New Newk

Around the same time Kevin Gausman surrendered Starling Marte’s three-run homer to pull the Pirates within one run in the third inning, recently signed Dallas Keuchel concluded his nearly-flawless seven-inning tuneup for Class A Rome.

Given Gausman has allowed 29 hits and 19 runs in 8 1/3 innings over his past three starts, the Braves may skip his next scheduled start on Saturday. But with Keuchel likely to make at least one more Minor League start before being activated, the assignment may go to Newcomb, who has posted a 1.42 ERA and issued just two walks over the 19 innings completed since he moved to the bullpen after returning from his demotion to Triple-A.

Newcomb had not completed more than two innings or totaled more than 29 pitches since May 6. But the rejuvenated left-hander, who is now consistently recording strikes with his curveball, had little trouble as he threw 55 pitches and allowed the Pirates just one hit over 4 2/3 scoreless innings.

Braves manager Brian Snitker wasn’t ready to commit to who will start on Saturday, but Gausman said he would understand if Newcomb is given a chance.

“His stuff has been great,” Gausman said. “His problem has been the walks, and if he can scratch that problem out, there’s no reason he shouldn’t be in the rotation. I’m not throwing the ball the way I should be, so we’ll see what happens.”

Left side promise

Given Markakis entered Monday having hit .186 over his previous 30 games, this may have been a breakout night for both he and Albies, who entered having tallied just three home runs in 191 at-bats against right-handed pitchers this season.

Albies nearly matched this total with the solo homers hit in the third and eighth. This was the switch-hitting second baseman’s third career multi-homer game, but the first within which he homered twice from the left side.

Albies’ struggles from the left side dating to last year’s All-Star break have been well chronicled. But he has shown some promise as he has been less pull-happy while producing a .920 OPS over his last 50 plate appearances against right-handed pitchers, dating to May 23.

“I’m feeling great,” Albies said. “I’m working hard, seeing the ball well and just trying to hit everything up the middle.”

Acuna’s slam

Acuna isn’t nearly as hot as Freeman, who has hit 11 of his 18 home runs while producing a 1.142 OPS over his past 23 games. But last year’s NL Rookie of the Year Award winner might be in the early stages of his own tear. He has homered four times within his past 25 at-bats and he has produced a .967 OPS over his past 10 games.

Acuna’s second-inning grand slam off Pirates reliever Alex McRae wasn’t nearly as energizing as the slam he hit off Dodgers right-hander Walker Buehler in the 2018 NL Division Series. But it put him in the company of greatness. He now has 41 home runs, which moves him past Hank Aaron for the fourth-most homers by a Braves hitter before his 22nd birthday. Eddie Mathews holds the record with 72.

Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.