'Top player for a reason': Acuña lifts Braves in NL East hunt

September 26th, 2022

PHILADELPHIA -- Memories of last year’s postseason celebrations were stirred as the jubilant screams were heard outside the Braves' clubhouse following an 8-7 win in 11 innings over the Phillies on Sunday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park.

“This is a fun team,” Braves center fielder Michael Harris II said. “That’s why we were so excited.”

If the Braves realize their ultimate goal, there will be greater wins this year. But this comeback victory will always stand as one of the most satisfying wins of the regular season. Atlanta squandered two leads within the first five innings, sat through a two-hour, nine-minute rain delay, tallied a tying run with two outs in the eighth and then claimed victory in a game that concluded more than six hours after it began.

More importantly, with Jackson Stephens keeping the Phillies quiet over the final two innings, the game ended with the Braves still 1 1/2 games behind the first-place Mets in the National League East. Those two teams will begin a three-game series on Friday in Atlanta.

The Braves have ensured they would be the top NL Wild Card entry if they don’t win a fifth straight National League East crown. This means they would host each of the three games played during the Wild Card Series.

“It’s a big win,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “You want to keep pace in this whole thing. I’m happy for the guys. Man, that’s unbelievable.”

How much changed during this long contest? Well, the game started with uncertainty about Ronald Acuña Jr.’s ailing back. By the time the great battle was over, Acuña was talking about how he had played a part in each of the final three runs the Braves scored.

Acuña was serenaded with boos as he emerged from the Braves’ dugout to pinch-hit with two outs in the eighth inning. The outfielder had missed the first three games of this four-game set, but he wasn’t given a chance to swing the bat in eighth as the Phillies intentionally walked him to load the bases. Pinch-runner Guillermo Heredia, who had reached third on Eddie Rosario’s double, scored when David Robertson uncorked a wild pitch on an 0-2 delivery to Robbie Grossman.

“That’s just the team we are, we never let down,” Harris said. “We always have fight in us.”

After losing the first two games of this series, the Braves left Philadelphia feeling sky-high. Contreras began the 11th inning as the automatic runner on second base and scored the go-ahead run when Acuña singled up the middle with just the third swing he had taken dating to Wednesday. Harris then plated Acuña with what proved to be a decisive two-out single.

Seven of the eight runs the Braves scored were tallied with two outs. There’s something to the claim that Atlanta battles as well as any other team in the game. The defending World Series champs lead MLB in home runs (85) and OPS (.807) with two outs.

"[Acuña] is the top player in the league for a reason,” Harris said. “We’re all just trying to do the same thing he did -- come up clutch in those situations.”

Along with gaining confidence that Acuña will be available for the remainder of the regular season, the Braves strengthened themselves mentally with this determined victory. Charlie Morton recorded his fourth 200-strikeout season, but he squandered two leads and allowed six runs over just 4 2/3 innings.

The Phillies were leading, 6-5, when the long rain delay began with a runner at first and two outs in the fifth. When play resumed, Brandon Marsh laced a double to the left-center-field wall. Harris quickly grabbed the ball, made a strong throw to Dansby Swanson and then watched catcher Travis d’Arnaud apply the tag on Jean Segura.

After a replay review confirmed the call, Jesse Chavez, Dylan Lee, Raisel Iglesias, Kenley Jansen and Stephens showed the strength of the Braves’ bullpen. The only other run the Phillies scored came when Marsh crossed the plate after beginning the 11th as the automatic runner.

Stephens has been a great asset throughout the season and his story got even better as the final stages of this battle concluded. Few gave him a chance to be in the Majors this year. But he just gave the defending champs a big push toward the postseason.