Acuña's return brings 'different energy' to Braves

April 29th, 2022

ATLANTA -- was playing "Call of Duty" when he received a FaceTime call from Braves president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos on Thursday at approximately 1 a.m. ET.

“I answered and he asked me, 'Are you ready to play tomorrow?'” Acuña said through an interpreter. “Knowing I had a game in Gwinnett, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m ready to play.’ And he was like, ‘No, no, are you ready to play up here tomorrow?’ I was like, ‘Oh yeah, let’s go right now, I’m ready.’”

Anthopoulos said he will never forget the genuine excitement and joy he saw as Acuña screamed and celebrated. Nearly 10 full calendar months after undergoing major knee surgery, the Braves superstar had been cleared to play and resume his role as one of MLB’s elite players.

Acuña was still brimming with excitement as he played right field and batted leadoff in Thursday night’s 5-1 win over the Cubs at Truist Park. This was the opportunity he been waiting for ever since July 10 of last season, when he tore his right ACL.

“It feels like getting called up to the big leagues again,” Acuña said before going 1-for-5 with a pair of stolen bases.

Acuña grounded out, hit into a fielder’s choice and struck out through his first three plate appearances. The 24-year-old outfielder then created a memorable moment when he singled to right field in the seventh. He swiped second base a few moments later to tie Dansby Swanson for the team lead with two steals.

“I think the adrenaline level was at a maximum,” Acuña said. “Those first few at-bats, I couldn’t contain myself. The later at-bats, I felt like I could keep the emotions in check a little better. But it was really exciting.”

Braves manager Brian Snitker was certainly happy to put Acuña’s name back in the lineup. The reigning World Series champs now have Acuña, Matt Olson, Austin Riley, Marcell Ozuna and Ozzie Albies filling the first five spots of their lineup. Each of these players has produced a 30-homer season at one point in his career.

Riley hit his fifth homer of the young season to help create an early lead for Kyle Wright, who celebrated Acuña’s return by allowing one run over a career-high seven innings. With No. 13 back, Wright now fittingly has a 1.13 ERA through his first four dazzling starts.

Acuña made his presence known defensively in the fourth inning, preventing Jason Heyward from tallying more than a single. Heyward’s drive to right field bounced off the brick wall and was played perfectly by Acuña, whose quick throw to second base kept Heyward from reaching scoring position with no one out.

“When I was doing my preparation and stuff, you could just feel a different energy,” Wright said. “He’s a superstar player. Just getting a guy like that back in the lineup and locker room goes a long way.”

Acuña will rest on Friday after traveling with the team to Texas before returning to Atlanta’s lineup for Saturday night’s game against the Rangers. He is expected to rest again on Sunday, as the Braves will initially shy away from having him play day games following night games.

After Thursday’s game, Acuña playfully said he was planning to play on Friday night. But the Braves told him once again that he won’t be back in the starting lineup again until Saturday.

Acuña could play during Monday night’s series opener against the Mets and return for the second game of Tuesday’s doubleheader. The ability to use him as a designated hitter will help the Braves as they monitor his workload. Snitker said the outfielder might not be used on an everyday basis in right field before July.

“Every day is going to be different,” Snitker said. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you what we’re going to do. But he’ll DH some and play the field some too.”

Acuña’s return should create excitement throughout the baseball world. The two-time All-Star finished three stolen bases shy of a 40-40 season in 2019 and helped the Braves finish one win shy of a National League pennant in 2020. He stood as a top MVP candidate last season before suffering the knee injury, producing a .990 OPS and putting himself on a 44-home run pace.

“Obviously, I want to be the baseball player I’ve always been,” Acuña said. “I want to be the player that goes out there, plays hard and tries to have a good experience with the fans.”