Vladdy Jr. answers Acuña in 'must-see TV'

Slugger snaps power drought to lift Blue Jays in showcase game for pair of young stars

May 12th, 2021

Baseball’s present and future were on display Tuesday night at Truist Park in Atlanta as broke out of a recent power drought to go toe to toe with Ronald Acuña Jr.

Guerrero hadn’t homered since his hat trick against the Nationals back on April 27. But when Acuña’s rocket cleared the left-center-field wall in the third inning to give Atlanta a two-run lead over the Blue Jays and Acuña the Major League lead in home runs, that seemed to wake Guerrero up.

Guerrero launched his eighth home run of the season in the sixth, a two-run shot to the opposite field, then got a bases-loaded rally rolling in the eighth by ripping an RBI single through the left side to set up Toronto’s 5-3 win.

“It’s must-see TV. There are a lot of good players on both teams, and young players,” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said after the win. “It’s fun to watch. Watching Acuña on the other side, you don’t want him to hit a home run, but he’s a good player. We’ve got the same with Vladdy and Bo. They’ve got it over there, too, so this is must-see TV.”

The 22-year-old slugger had hit just .211 with two extra-base hits over 11 games since his three-homer night, and while that’s a terribly picky sample size, you have to nitpick to find cold stretches in his breakout season.

Guerrero’s first two seasons in the big leagues didn’t reach the sky-high expectations set for baseball’s No. 1 prospect. And while he was still very young, it was peers like Acuña who were setting the pace ahead of him.

At 20, Acuña won the 2018 National League Rookie of the Year Award with a .917 OPS. At 21 and 22, he won Silver Slugger Awards and signed an eight-year, $100 million contract extension. Put that alongside Juan Soto’s incredible seasons at ages, 19, 20 and 21, and Fernando Tatis’ 14-year, $340 million deal signed after his age-21 season, and suddenly it was more difficult to write off Guerrero’s slow start as a product of youth alone.

Now, Guerrero is catching up.

“Acuña, Tatis, all of these super-talented guys, they all work hard to be where they’re at right now. Same thing with me,” Guerrero said. “I’m not really focused on what they do, I just try to do the same thing and keep working hard every day, keep doing what I’m doing.”

This conversation begins and ends with Guerrero’s improved physique, which has allowed him to get back to being the game-changing offensive talent that Blue Jays fans fell in love with through grainy Minor League videos four years ago. He’s walking just as much as he strikes out, which wasn’t the case through ‘19 and ‘20, and he is driving the ball with authority to all fields. Guerrero chased power and battled fatigue at the plate in those seasons, but now he’s back to dictating at-bats, with the pitchers often being relegated to the role of supporting actor.

Tuesday’s performance also showed a more aggressive side of Guerrero. Yes, he has taken his 25 walks through 34 games, but when he’s at his best, he leaves no room for error when a pitcher gets too comfortable early in the at-bat. On the home run, Guerrero jumped on the second pitch from Bryse Wilson to drive it the other way. On the RBI single in the eighth, Guerrero swung at the first pitch, and it looked like he knew exactly what was coming out of A.J. Minter's hand.

“In this case, I was ready to attack,” Guerrero said. “If the pitch was right there, I was going to swing, and I was going to attack it. It was right there, and it was a pitch that I was looking for, so I just swung. It was good contact.”

Guerrero’s night overshadowed another strong outing from , who’s establishing himself as the Blue Jays’ No. 2 starter behind Hyun Jin Ryu. Ray’s start followed the same script as his recent ones, with a pair of home runs allowed but dominance in between. The lefty struck out 10 Atlanta batters, racking up whiffs with both his slider and curveball over a season-high 99 pitches.

When the lineup is clicking like this, led by Guerrero, that creeps into the starter’s mind, too.

“This team can hit, and it’s really fun to watch when they break out like that and have that huge inning,” Ray said. “That’s the name of the game, keeping your team in it, keeping it close enough to where you know the bats are going to come through. We’ve got some really heavy hitters on this team, and it’s so fun to watch.”