Acuña (16th HR), Braves end May with big W
ATLANTA -- Time will tell how the remainder of this season will develop. But it’s hard to believe any month will be more challenging for the Braves than May, which actually concluded on a positive note with a 5-3 win over the Nationals on Monday night at Truist Park.
Energized by a packed house for this Memorial Day contest, the Braves didn’t show any of the rust that could have developed while they played just once over the previous four days. Ronald Acuña Jr. fueled a three-run first inning and then further supported Charlie Morton with a solo homer in the second.
With Acuña hitting his 16th homer to regain a tie for the MLB lead, the Braves actually ended up going 13-12 in May. This came as a surprise to manager Brian Snitker, who had to deal with losing veteran catcher Travis d’Arnaud and rotation savior Huascar Ynoa.
And Marcell Ozuna, who was arrested this past weekend for domestic violence, is currently not playing as well.
“We’re still fighting here,” Snitker said. “It might be this month or next month. You’ve just got to keep going. It’s a long road and we play every day. So, we’ve to take every day as a separate entity and go out and win. We’re going to keep getting after it to hit on all cylinders.”
d’Arnaud will be sidelined for at least a few more months as he recovers from the torn thumb ligaments he suffered on May 1. Ynoa is out until at least the second half of August with the broken hand he suffered while punching a dugout bench on May 16.
The road won’t get any easier for the Braves, who will play each of the National League’s current first-place teams -- the Dodgers, Cardinals and Mets -- in June. But as they sit within four games of first place, they still believe in their bid for a fourth straight National League East title.
“It’s great because I don’t think we even hit our stride yet,” Morton said. “I know we have a tough June coming up with some really tough teams we’re going to play. I’m not going to say it’s going to make or break (the season). But I think this stretch coming up is the one that will either give us some momentum to finish the second half pretty well or it’s going to be pretty tough.”
Here’s a look at some key developments from Monday’s win:
Acuña entered Monday having hit .210 with seven homers and a .799 OPS through 22 May games. But he started this series opener with a check-swing single off Joe Ross. Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies drew consecutive walks ahead of Dansby Swanson’s sacrifice fly and William Contreras’ two-run single.
After fueling the three-run first, Acuña hit an opposite-field, 390-foot homer off Ross in the second. His solo shot was his 16th homer of the season, tying him with Adolis García, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Fernando Tatis Jr. for the MLB lead.
Snitker was equally pleased to see the results of the excuse-me single that helped the Braves increase their MLB-best first-inning run total to 47. Among the 103 players who entered Monday having put at least 50 balls in play with a 95-plus mph exit velocity, Acuña ranked 55th with a .493 batting average during these at-bats.
“He’s had so many hard-hit outs,” Snitker said. “It was kind of nice to see him get a check-swing hit because he hits the ball so hard all the time.”
Jackson’s big inning
Morton retired nine of the first 11 batters he faced and then labored through a three-run fourth. Josh Bell hit an opposite-field homer against a 0-2 fastball, and Ross added to his mound counterpart’s woes with a two-out RBI single.
With Morton lasting just five innings, the Braves handed a 4-3 lead to Luke Jackson, who surrendered a hit in a scoreless sixth. The former closer ended the inning with a strikeout of Trea Turner, who struck out in each of his first four plate appearances.
Jackson has produced a 1.40 ERA and while limiting opponents to a .214 batting average over 19 1/3 innings. The former closer is rewarding the Braves for keeping him around after he posted a 6.84 ERA in 26 1/3 innings last year.
“There seems like there’s always traffic when he’s out there,” Snitker said. “But Luke is throwing the ball so much better than he did last year. His stuff has been really good this year. We don’t give him enough credit for the job he has done.”
Jackson, A.J. Minter, Chris Martin and Will Smith combined to retire 12 of the 13 batters faced over the final four innings.
Since being thrust into an everyday role following d’Arnaud’s injury, Contreras has shown his youth behind the plate as a rookie catcher. But he has impressed offensively, producing a .841 OPS through 78 plate appearances.
“He’s shown what he can do,” Acuña said. “It’s a long season. We don’t know what his numbers are going to look like at the end of the year. But I expect them to be good.”