WASHINGTON -- Nearly three months after his much-anticipated arrival and a few weeks removed from his month-long disabled list stint, Ronald Acuna Jr. may now be in position to be the difference maker the Braves need to make a strong run at a division crown.Displaying the tools that earned him
WASHINGTON -- Nearly three months after his much-anticipated arrival and a few weeks removed from his month-long disabled list stint, Ronald Acuna Jr. may now be in position to be the difference maker the Braves need to make a strong run at a division crown.
Displaying the tools that earned him the honor of entering this season as MLB Pipeline's top overall prospect, Acuna gladly accepted his first assignment in the leadoff spot and put on a show during Friday night's 8-5 win over Stephen Strasburg and the Nationals at Nationals Park. The 20-year-old phenom finished a triple shy of the cycle and became the youngest player of the modern era (since 1900) to homer and steal two bases in a game, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
"When I first saw him in Spring Training, I felt he was one of the best young players I've seen at that age," said Charlie Culberson, who homered in the victory. "He's a five-tool player. He's fun to watch, and it looks like he's getting back in his groove."
Acuna capped the fifth three-hit game of his young career with an eighth-inning solo shot that served as an exclamation point for the Braves, who remain a half-game behind the National League East-leading Phillies despite stumbling at the end of the first half. By sweeping this series, they would strengthen their position as buyers and create some Trade Deadline uncertainty for the third-place Nationals, who sit 6 1/2 games out.
"I definitely felt more comfortable tonight," Acuna said through an interpreter. "I was starting to feel more comfortable as the first half was coming to a close. I was making some adjustments with the mechanics of my swing. Fortunately, I've been able to adapt."
While it was expected the Braves would open the second half with someone other than Ender Inciarte as the leadoff hitter, Snitker provided somewhat of a surprise when he tabbed Acuna, who had hit .212 (11-for-52) with a .255 on-base percentage since returning on June 29 from the lengthy stint necessitated by a strained left anterior cruciate ligament.
But it didn't take long for the dynamic outfielder to make a difference. He singled during a two-run first and doubled during a three-run fifth that chased Strasburg, who allowed six runs and eight hits over 4 2/3 innings. The Nationals right-hander has lasted fewer than five innings in eight of 30 career starts against the Braves.
"[Acuna] looked like he did in Spring Training," Snitker said. "He set the table for us all night. It was really good. He had some really good at-bats. He was kind of a different guy there. He was swinging the bat really well."
Acuna showed off his speed as he doubled his season total with a pair of stolen bases. He swiped second ahead of the first-inning RBI double produced by Ozzie Albies, who promptly stole third and scored on Freddie Freeman's groundout. But the All-Star second baseman tweaked his right hamstring during this trip around the bases and made a precautionary exit in the third inning.
Albies will likely miss the remainder of this series and seems questionable for a two-game set that begins Monday in Miami. But with Acuna, the Braves at least have half of a duo with the potential this second half to show why it may already be the Majors' most dynamic.
"To be the player that everybody wants, he's in the process," Braves veteran pitcher Anibal Sanchez said of Acuna. "But the way he is right now, enjoying the game, being healthy and putting up those numbers, it's really, really impressive."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Sanchez's willingness to provide instruction to younger starters has been invaluable, but his most important lesson might have been delivered on Friday, when the hurler totaled 52 pitches through the first two innings and still managed to allow just three runs over six frames.
The Nationals seemed primed to strike when a Matt Wieters double, a Strasburg single and an Adam Eaton walk loaded the bases with just one out in the second. But Sanchez got Trea Turner to look at a 1-2 cutter on the inside corner and then escaped unscathed with a Bryce Harper groundout.
"He never stops pitching," Snitker said. "Every pitch is a big deal for him. He has a purpose for every one and he doesn't give in. He trusts his stuff. In the beginning, I was thinking maybe we can get him through four [innings]."
Nationals 19-year-old outfielder Juan Soto created more history when he hit a two-run homer in the eighth against Jesse Biddle. According to Elias, Soto and Acuna are the first opposing players to homer in the same game before turning 21 since Egyptian Healy of the Indianapolis Hoosiers and Mike Tiernan of the New York Giants did so on May 19, 1887.
Strasburg and the Nationals are well aware of why Freeman is arguably the top candidate for the NL MVP Award. The Braves first baseman delivered a two-run double during the fifth and is hitting .333 (30-for-90) with a 1.080 OPS against Washington since the start of the 2017 season.
Freeman has hit .354 (17-for-48) with five doubles and four homers in his career against Strasburg.
Sean Newcomb will take the mound when the Braves and Nationals resume their three-game series at 7:05 p.m. ET on Saturday. Newcomb had a 2.73 ERA after he limited the Nationals to two runs over seven innings on May 31, but the young southpaw produced a 4.68 ERA over his next eight starts before the break. Washington will counter with Giovany Gonzalez, who has a 5.04 ERA in 22 career starts against Atlanta.
Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.