ATLANTA -- That sigh of relief you might have heard near SunTrust Park on Thursday afternoon was in response to Ronald Acuña Jr. hitting his 40th home run and helping the Braves move just one step away from clinching the National League East.
Acuña halted his recent frustrations with a two-run homer that put him in exclusive company and propelled the Braves to a 5-4 win over the Phillies that reduced their magic number to one. A second straight division title will be secured with another victory or one more Nationals loss.
“[Nearing the clinch] is the most exciting thing up to this point, to be honest,” Acuña said through an interpreter. “That’s what we’re all looking for. I think all of us need to come out with that same energy and enthusiasm and get that win and celebrate.”
There will soon be reason to celebrate a second straight division title and perhaps another achievable personal accomplishment, such as Acuña’s pursuit of the fifth 40-homer, 40 stolen-base season in MLB history.
Acuña, three steals away from the 40/40 club, is now the youngest player to record a 40/30 season. In addition, he now stands with former Braves great Eddie Mathews (1953) and Mel Ott (1929) as the only players to hit 40 homers in their age-21 or younger season.
“It means a lot to me, to be honest, to be compared to superstars and Hall of Famers like that, especially at such a young age,” Acuña said. “Wow. It’s kind of like one of those feelings that is hard to describe. But at the same time, it’s a motivator to continue to work hard.”
Although it would be great to see Acuña add his name to another exclusive list, the Braves’ hope is that their young All-Star might now surge into the postseason. He claims that his pursuit of 40 homers did not bother him while he batted .197 with four homers and a .655 OPS over the 30 games leading into Thursday’s series finale.
But manager Brian Snitker is among those who thought otherwise.
“When he hit [the 40th homer], I told [Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer], ‘He might relax now and really go off,’” Snitker said. “It’s got to weigh on you. As hard as you don’t want it to be, it is. I’m happy for him. That’s an unbelievable accomplishment at this stage of his career. Hopefully, he just exhales a little bit, and you never know, he might just go off.”
In snapping what was their first three-game losing streak in more than two months, the Braves got the boost they needed with the majestic two-homer homer Acuña hit off Aaron Nola in the third inning. The 21-year-old phenom slowly moved out of the batter’s box as he admired the 432-foot shot, which landed in the second deck in left field.
After helping the Braves gain a two-run lead, Acuña walked and scored on Freddie Freeman’s go-ahead two-run single in the fifth inning.
“To be honest, I’ve been feeling good this entire time,” Acuña said. “You’ve got to realize in baseball, not everything goes the way you want. There are highs and lows. That’s just part of the game.”
Acuña’s latest homer provided an early lead for Soroka, who battled inconsistent command while allowing two runs during a five-inning effort that at least served as a tuneup for what will be his first postseason start. Riley started in place of third baseman Josh Donaldson, who got his first day off since May 22, and created some encouragement as he halted his own struggles with an opposite-field homer off Nola in the sixth.
After the game, Soroka reminisced about the conversations he and former Braves prospect Kolby Allard used to have in the Minors. Allard saw Acuña as a gap hitter who would hit 20 to 25 homers per season. Soroka believed Acuña's bat speed was going to lead to some 30-homer seasons.
Acuña has already exceeded those expectations and further fueled the excitement that will surround him over the remainder of this season and for many years to come.
“I don’t see him stopping or taking it easy,” Soroka said. “I think he’s hungry for more. It’s going to be fun. Hopefully, I get a chance to play with him for a long time.”