Ready in a pinch: Acuña comes off bench, sparks Braves' rally

May 28th, 2022

ATLANTA -- As soon as Ronald Acuña Jr. grabbed a bat out of the bat rack and began stretching in the dugout, there was an expectation something special was on the horizon. Though Travis Demeritte was in the on-deck circle, it was obvious this moment was reserved for Acuña.

“I was sitting there thinking, ‘Wait until I run him out there, this place is going to go nuts,'” Braves manager Brian Snitker said.

A sold-out crowd certainly didn’t disappoint, roaring as soon as Acuña strolled off the bench to pinch hit with two outs in the seventh inning of Friday night’s game at Truist Park. The superstar outfielder had been sidelined the past two days with a right quad strain. But he showed no rust as he laced a game-tying double that propelled the Braves to a 6-4 win over the Marlins.

“When he gets the hit, the place goes crazy in a spot like that to tie it up,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “He's a great player, so it's hard to get him out no matter what. They're going to be better with him in there no matter what. In any situation, you just don't ever like him in there.”

From the other perspective, the Braves love to see Acuña around in any situation. The two-time All-Star returned from a torn right ACL on April 28, played 10 games, tweaked his left groin, missed five games and then played seven more games before waking up on Wednesday morning with a sore right quad. 

Acuña missed a third straight start on Friday, but he created enough encouragement with his pregame running for head athletic trainer George Poulis to tell Snitker just before that game started that he could use his prized outfielder for the final couple innings.

“You know me, I’m always ready to play,” Acuña said.

Austin Riley hit his 10th homer, William Contreras delivered an RBI double and Demeritte snapped a 0-for-34 skid with an RBI single in Atlanta’s three-run fifth. But after Ian Anderson surrendered a pair of two-run homers in the sixth, the Braves faced the one-run deficit that Acuña erased with the double he laced to the left-field corner off Anthony Bass.

“What a big situation and how calm he was in the at-bat, too,” Snitker said. “He wasn’t trying to do too much. The overall maturity he has shown is really, really good.”

Acuña burst out of the batter’s box with excitement and twirled his bat high in the air as Matt Olson scored from first base.

“It’s the energy I try to bring to the ballpark every day,” Acuña said. “I hope that energy transfers to my teammates.”

Well, the energy certainly lingered as Dansby Swanson followed with a walk and then managed to score from first on Ozzie Albies’ go-ahead, two-run double to shallow left field. Swanson was a few steps from third base when Jorge Soler picked up the baseball and momentarily held along the left-field line. Swanson barely broke stride while running through third-base coach Ron Washington’s stop sign and was nearly halfway toward the plate as Soler threw the ball to third baseman Joey Wendle.

“I just had an instinct,” Swanson said. “For a split second, I felt like his attention went to Ozzie or his eyes moved. It was something as I was running to third, I processed that he was on his second read. He read me and then was looking at second or over at Ozzie.”

With Tuesday’s ninth-inning comeback against the Phillies and this late rally against the Marlins, the Braves have shown some moxie and kept themselves within 7 1/2 games of the first-place Mets. Acuña has contributed to both of these wins and he hopes to be back in the lineup as a right fielder or designated hitter on Saturday.

Acuña wants to play whenever possible, but he certainly likes this weekend’s opponent. He has now hit .330 with 21 homers in 227 career at-bats against the Marlins, who have hit him with a pitch six times, three more times than any other National League East opponent.

“Obviously, it feels good to have success against any team whatsoever,” Acuña said. “Yeah, it’s good to have it against the Marlins. I can say now that I love playing against the Marlins.”