Next-level Acuña sparks Braves in 10th straight win

June 12th, 2022

ATLANTA -- Hours before LeBron James expressed his admiration for Ronald Acuña Jr. on Twitter, Braves manager Brian Snitker was driving to Truist Park thinking about where his young outfielder ranks among the most exciting players he has ever seen.

“I don’t know that I’ve seen anybody like that in my time, and I’ve seen a bunch of Hall of Famers and some that aren’t Hall of Famers that are knocking on the door, where you just go ‘Wow,’” Snitker said. “This kid is almost on another level with what he can do.”

Acuña created another jaw-dropping moment and again performed like one of professional sports’ most exciting athletes while helping the Braves extend their winning streak to 10 games with a 10-4 victory over the Pirates at Truist Park on Saturday. The energizing outfielder hit his latest leadoff home run and scored from first base in dramatic fashion on a single.

“He’s actually pretty quiet and when he gets out on the field, it’s his chance to unleash whatever is in there,” Braves starter Charlie Morton said. “Watching him play is a window to an opportunity to see something I don’t see a whole lot of. There’s a language barrier, and oftentimes there can be a cultural barrier. Sometimes baseball gives you a unique window of being able to see somebody in a way you didn’t before.”

As the Braves have tallied 10 straight wins for the first time since 2013, they’ve benefited from the healthy and dynamic presence of Acuña, who returned from a torn right ACL on April 28. He is a five-tool talent whose greatness is recognized by other superstars like James, who tweeted “Ayyeeee!! Man I love this kid,” after Acuña homered and celebrated with James’ “Chalk Toss” ritual in the first inning.

“It brings a lot of emotions to have a superstar, a living legend of that caliber be that supportive,” Acuña said. “That makes me proud.”

Acuña grew up idolizing James and now he finds himself also recognized as one of the world’s best athletes. He was constructing an MVP-caliber season last year before tearing his right ACL on July 10. He battled some pain and inconsistencies when he first came off the injured list this year, but both his power and speed have been easy to see as he has hit .389 with four homers and a 1.230 OPS during Atlanta’s winning streak.

Going back to Spring Training, Snitker has repeatedly questioned whether Acuña might actually be faster than he was before the major knee injury. His wonder didn’t diminish when the speedy outfielder was clocked at 30.2 feet per second. as he scored from first base on Dansby Swanson’s one-out, three-run single that traveled 194 feet and landed in shallow right field along the foul line.

“I had a really good lead, so I didn’t think there was going to be much of a chance for them to get me,” Acuña said.

Acuña scored standing up after going through third-base coach Ron Washington’s stop sign.

“He didn’t even realize [Washington] was there,” Snitker said. “He was just flying. A play like that kind of shocks the defense because they don’t expect it on a ball like that. But I know as soon as that ball was hit, he was in fourth gear.”

Before the Braves began their streak on June 1, they were 23-27 and 10 1/2 games behind the first-place Mets in the National League East. They have erased at least four games from that deficit and have started to look more like reigning World Series champs. It’s not a coincidence that this run has coincided with Acuña playing right field on a daily basis.

Acuña started just 19 of 28 games in May and he made just 10 starts in right field within this span. When he served as the designated hitter while regaining strength in his legs, the Braves’ outfield defense was significantly weakened. The outfield defense has gone from a liability to a strength as Acuña started each of the past nine games in right field.

At the same time, the lineup has taken shape with Acuña filling the top spot every day. The dynamic slugger has tallied his franchise-record 25 leadoff homers while making just 340 starts at the top of Atlanta’s lineup. That equates to one homer every 13.6 games he has served as the Braves’ leadoff hitter.

“The talent is ridiculous,” Morton said. “I think he is good for where the game is going. You have his personality and there’s a uniqueness to his game.”