October 2, 2022

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Acuña excitement builds as Braves stick to plan

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NEW YORK — Approximately 45 minutes after being restricted to spectator status, Ronald Acuña Jr. began the second game of a doubleheader with a screaming double that only enhanced the desire for this superstar to return to an everyday role.

While Braves fans are delighted to see Acuña back to doing Acuña things, some of them still question why he’s not allowed to perform on a daily basis. The young outfielder wasn’t available to even serve as a pinch-hitter as the Mets claimed a 5-4 win in the first game on Tuesday at Citi Field. But he served as the right fielder for the entirety of the Braves’ 3-0 loss in the nightcap.

“We have a plan with him, and we’re going to stick by it,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “You have to do that. There are a lot of things where you have to look ahead. Early in the season, you don’t like that you do have to be careful about how you use guys, but it’s such a long, long season.”

Acuña is a week shy of the 10-month anniversary of tearing his right anterior cruciate ligament. His return from the injured list last week came a little earlier than some expected. But as the Braves continue to slumber through the early portion of this season, their fans understandably have become more anxious and excited about Acuña’s availability.

As for Snitker and the team’s decision-makers, they have a responsibility to remain focused on what is best for Acuña both from an immediate and long-term perspective. But they too might become a little more anxious, especially now that they trail the first-place Mets by seven games in the National League East.

“I’ve always been a patient baseball player, and whatever decisions they make I know are with my best interest in mind,” Acuña said through an interpreter. “So all I can control is to be ready and whenever they say it’s time to play, I’ll be ready to play.”

Acuña has already played a little more than initially expected. After returning from the IL on Thursday, he rested Friday, served as the designated hitter on Saturday and Sunday, and then played right field again on Monday night. So it was understood when he wasn’t in the lineup for Monday’s first game.

But with the Braves trailing by one run in the ninth and Guillermo Heredia due up third, there was an obvious need for a pinch-hitter. Acuña was seemingly a logical option, but Snitker said the young superstar will currently only be used in a starting role.

Acuña would have had to go through a process to be prepared to hit and possibly play the field if extra innings were needed. But with the second game set to start 40 minutes after the conclusion of the first, there was reason to question whether using him would have made sense.

“In a situation like that, you don’t deviate from [the plan],” Snitker said. “You don’t panic during a game and go tell him to hit in a cage and then throw him out there.”

Acuña began the second game by slapping a 116.6 mph double down the left-field line. This was the fourth-hardest-hit ball of his career and the first extra-base hit he has recorded since being activated. The 24-year-old slugger came within a few feet of a home run on Monday night. A couple of hours earlier, he had recorded the Braves’ fastest sprint speed of the year (30.5 feet/sec.) while earning an infield single.

Though Acuña is just 4-for-20 since returning, he has steadily grown more comfortable in the batter’s box, and more importantly further distanced himself from a knee injury that he and the Braves don’t want to be a lingering issue over the course of this season and beyond.

“With every at-bat, my swing feels better,” Acuña said. “I went a long time without any baseball activity. So it’s little by little and day by day, but it feels better every time.”

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