February 2, 2023

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Acuña makes his triumphant return to site of injury

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MIAMI — It’s been 314 days since Ronald Acuña Jr. last took the field at loanDepot park against the Marlins. And it will be at least 84 more days, since the Braves’ star outfielder is serving as designated hitter this weekend in their first series in Miami of 2022.

When Acuña was last at loanDepot park, he tore his ACL running down a fly ball that became an inside-the-park home run from Jazz Chisholm Jr. Since that game, Acuña has had his knee surgically repaired, gone through months of rehab, made his return to baseball and dealt with another injury — a tweaked right groin — that only briefly kept him away from the game.

“We’re gonna keep him off this turf,” manager Brian Snitker said prior to Atlanta’s 5-3 series-opener win on Friday. “We’re going to play tonight’s game and then we’ll evaluate him, see how he feels tomorrow coming in and make the determination then, but it’s going to be a day-to-day thing with him.”

Through it all, he’s still the same Acuña. He’s continued to bring energy to the Braves clubhouse and he’s continued to hit — and hit hard.

Batting leadoff on Friday, Acuña smashed a double to left field on the sixth pitch of the game with a projected 113.8 mph exit velocity — harder than any of the Braves’ three home runs that followed. The hit extended his on-base streak to 27 games (dating back to last year), which is tied with the Cardinals’ Paul Goldschmidt and the Angels’ Taylor Ward for the longest active on-base streak in the Majors.

“Oh, it’s huge,” Snitker said of Acuña batting leadoff. “When they’ve got to navigate him four times a game, that’s big. When you know you have to face him — every time you turn around, he’s coming back up. … And he makes it better when the guys at the bottom of the lineup are hitting and they are on base for him. I love him up there, because after he hits the first time, he’s just coming up sooner. He’s not a leadoff hitter anymore. He’s just part of the lineup that gets up there sooner.”

Acuña also stole his seventh base of the year, swiping second after walking in the second inning. He then knocked another ball into left field in the fourth inning for a single, though he wanted to make it a double. But as he rounded first base, he saw the throw coming in and made a wide turn (a smart move considering his knee’s history in the ballpark, even if this turn was on dirt) and settled for the single.

The Braves needed the big win after their 11-inning loss on Wednesday — during which they held the lead three times and still lost. Atlanta’s bats have struggled against left-handers, with its offense entering Friday’s game slashing .219/.304/.380 vs. southpaws. But the squad found success against Miami lefty Trevor Rogers, tagging him for eight hits and all five of their runs, including those three homers (all of which were knocked to left field).

Part of what helped has been having Acuña back in the lineup. Friday marked his third game back since dealing with a groin strain that had him sidelined from May 10-17. Being back in time for the series in Miami, a team Acuña has historically found great success against, enabled the 24-year-old to get in a groove as Atlanta enters a stretch of 17 consecutive games without a day off.

“He’s a great hitter,” Rogers said. “He definitely changes the way their lineup works now that he’s back. … What he can do on the basepaths just changes a lot of things. So you’ve really just got to keep that same mentality [of attacking] even with him in the lineup or when he’s out of the lineup.”

With his 2-for-4 outing on Friday, Acuña improved his career numbers against the Marlins, as he’s now batting .324 with 61 runs scored in 57 games against Miami. He also has 12 stolen bases and 35 walks vs. the Fish. And that’s just after the series opener; there are still two more games left before Atlanta leaves town.

“Premier talent,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said of Acuña pregame. “That’s the challenge, just like [Juan] Soto and any of the top-tier guys. It’s a battle, they’re like that because they have less holes, dangerous in a lot of different ways on the bases, with power. He does so many things, and really, that’s the challenge. Just a talented player.”

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