January 29, 2023

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Acuña displays 'dynamic' impact in return

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MILWAUKEE – Somewhere in the process of proving he is indeed healthy again, Ronald Acuña Jr. reminded us he can entertain and excite without having to do much more than just be himself. 

Acuña didn’t add to his list of majestic home runs or tally a bunch of hits as he returned from a five-game absence to help the Braves claim a 3-0 win over the Brewers on Tuesday night at American Family Field. But the energetic outfielder helped account for the game’s first run and then used his now-healthy legs to fuel Atlanta’s two-run eighth.

“He’s dynamic,” said Braves left-hander Tucker Davidson after throwing five scoreless innings to notch his first career win. “He’s one of the top five players in the game. It’s just awesome to see him healthy and do his thing.” 

Having recorded 16 strikeouts in their past two games and 13-plus strikeouts in their previous three games, the Braves needed the jolt they received from Acuña, who went 1-for-3 with two walks, a stolen base and a deke that allowed him to tag and reach third base in the eighth. He certainly didn’t show any lingering effects from the sore groin that had sidelined him the past five games.

Acuña returned from a torn ACL on April 28 and played just 10 games before tweaking his groin during a May 10 game against the Red Sox. The Braves will evaluate him on a day-to-day basis before committing to an everyday role, but the expectation is the 24-year-old slugger will be ready to play right field during Wednesday afternoon’s series finale in Milwaukee.

“I really do feel good and I feel healthy,” Acuña said through an interpreter.

While there’s a need to be smart and not push Acuña too hard, his performance in this latest victory showed why there’s always a desire to see him in the lineup, especially with the designated hitter being an option.

How long did it take Acuña to prove he was healthy? Well, he began the game by getting down the line at 30.1 feet per second to record an infield single. For context, 30+ feet per second is considered elite.

“He’s just running so well,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “I haven’t seen Statcast, but he looks like he is faster than he was before he got hurt.”

What did Acuña do at the plate? After Adam Duvall and Dansby Swanson recorded consecutive one-out singles in the fifth, Acuña ripped a 106 mph grounder that eluded third baseman Mike Brosseau’s glove and allowed Duvall to score from second base.

Nine of the 24 (37.5 percent) balls put in play by Acuña have had an exit velocity of 105 mph or higher. To put this small sample in perspective, the only MLB players (min. 50 balls in play) who entered Tuesday having produced a 105+ mph exit velocity with at least 30 percent of the balls put in play are Giancarlo Stanton (38 percent) and Aaron Judge (34.5 percent).

Will Acuña continue to run? Acuña felt the groin discomfort when he stole second base during the first inning of the April 28 game against Boston, but that’s certainly not going to alter his game. He drew a leadoff walk in the eighth and stole second to improve to 6-for-6 in the stolen base department this season. His team-high six steals are tied for the NL’s fourth-highest total. A reminder — he has played just 11 games.

How did he impact the eighth? Along with stealing second base, Acuña fooled Brewers center fielder Lorenzo Cain when he tagged and went to third base on an Austin Riley fly ball that traveled just 275 feet. With Acuña on third base and the Braves leading 1-0, Brad Boxberger threw Marcell Ozuna a 2-2 slider that was blocked by Victor Caratini. Not taking another chance, Boxberger followed with a fastball that Ozuna hit over the left field foul pole for a two-run homer.

“That’s just the way I play baseball,” Acuña said. “It’s just about playing my game and being open and vocal about how I’m feeling.”

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