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Acuna, Albies turn Wrigley into All-Star stump

@mlbbowman
June 27, 2019

CHICAGO -- If Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies realize the thrill of experiencing the All-Star Game together, the baseball world will have a chance to better understand why Braves manager Brian Snitker has savored the chance to be around these energetic phenoms on a daily basis. “I love the

CHICAGO -- If Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies realize the thrill of experiencing the All-Star Game together, the baseball world will have a chance to better understand why Braves manager Brian Snitker has savored the chance to be around these energetic phenoms on a daily basis.

“I love the energy,” Snitker said. “I love watching those guys play. I love watching them warm up. I love the energy in the dugout and the enthusiasm with what they play. They have fun playing baseball. What a novel idea of enjoying playing baseball, and they do.”

Max Fried provided a much-needed solid start and Anthony Swarzak recorded the three biggest outs in the Braves’ 3-2 win over the Cubs on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field. But their efforts would have gone for naught without the contributions of Acuna, who belted his latest leadoff homer, and Albies, who delivered a go-ahead, two-run homer in the seventh.

Box score

“It’s entertaining to watch and entertaining to be a part of because they give you a big jolt of energy,” Fried said. “They’re always having fun and smiling. It just keeps reminding you it’s a kid’s game. You’ve got to have fun to be able to succeed.”

Close friends since they met in 2015 at Spring Training, Albies and Acuna have developed a brotherly bond as they have spent the past two seasons helping the Braves sit atop the National League East. They’ve helped create the team’s current 5 1/2-game division lead and simultaneously positioned themselves to be on the NL roster at this year’s All-Star Game.

“It would be like having my big brother go with me,” Albies said. “It would just be an awesome experience. We would be super happy to go together.”

Though he is a year older, the vertically challenged Albies has always referred to the 21-year-old Acuna as his older brother. They playfully share verbal jabs in the clubhouse, and their dugout antics have provided plenty of entertainment on social media outlets over the past year. But their most significant value comes from the fact they have already established themselves as two of the game’s best players.

“They’re making adjustments pitch to pitch,” Swarzak said. “You don’t see that from guys who are within the first couple years in the big leagues. They’re taking multiple swings at different pitches in different locations that guys like a Miguel Cabrera would do. It’s really impressive what these guys are doing day to day, and our record shows it.”

The Braves have produced MLB’s second-best winning percentage (.690) since Acuna was moved back to the leadoff spot. His dynamic presence has energized a powerful lineup.

The late May acquisition of Swarzak can’t be ignored, either. The veteran reliever’s ERA with Atlanta dropped to 0.54 when he escaped a two-on, nobody-out eighth-inning threat inherited from Sean Newcomb.

Swarzak’s escape preserved the lead Albies created when he drilled left-handed reliever Mike Montgomery’s first-pitch changeup into the right-field seats. The 22-year-old switch-hitting second baseman has always been a threat from the right side of the plate. But the fact he has produced a .888 OPS against right-handers dating back to May 17, led Cubs manager Joe Maddon to stick with Montgomery instead of bringing right-hander Brad Brach out of the bullpen.

The decision might have been different a month ago, when Albies was in the midst of producing a .564 OPS against right-handers during a 98-game stretch that dated back to last year’s All-Star break.

“He's good [from] both sides, for me,” Maddon said. “I don't think there's any real weakness there.... Historically, Monty puts the ball on the ground. It was just a high changeup.”

Opponents certainly have not been successful in finding real weaknesses with Acuna, who has tallied the fourth-most home runs (38) in the Majors dating back to last year’s All-Star break. His 19th of this season came against the first pitch thrown by Cubs starter Adbert Alzolay, who was making just second career appearance and first start.

Acuna’s towering shot landed at the top of the left-field bleachers and had a 46-degree launch angle, making it the highest homer hit by a Braves player since Statcast began in 2015. He now has 12 leadoff homers, tying him with Rafael Furcal for second-most in Braves history, five behind Felipe Alou’s franchise record.

Acuna will join Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger in the NL’s starting outfield. While Albies was not named a starter, perhaps he could join Acuna on the field as a reserve (announced Sunday at 4:30 p.m. ET on ESPN) and enrich this experience?

“We started at the bottom together,” Acuna said through an interpreter. “So, it would be unbelievable.”

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