Braves see encouraging sign in Ronald Acuña Jr. homer, but lose to Dodgers in 11

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LOS ANGELES — Last time the Atlanta Braves played at Dodger Stadium, Ronald Acuña Jr. absolutely went off, homering in each of the first three games of the Aug. 31-Sept. 3 series. The performance served as a springboard to his winning the National League MVP award in a unanimous vote over the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts.

This time, the Braves hope one of Acuña’s favorite ballparks can help him jump-start his season. And on Friday they saw an encouraging sign. Their superstar right fielder hit a game-tying solo homer in the eighth inning of Atlanta’s 4-3 loss in 11 innings, a series opener that ended with Andy Pages’ walk-off bloop hit against Jesse Chavez.

It was just the second homer for Acuña, who had 41 in his spectacular 2023 season, along with a majors-leading 73 stolen bases and NL-leading 1.012 OPS.

This season, he’s barely resembled the electrifying leadoff menace he was to opposing pitchers a year ago. But it’s early, and Braves teammates, coaches and manager Brian Snitker have said they have no doubt he’ll break out soon and start doing Acuña things — like he did in the eighth inning, when he unloaded on a Daniel Hudson full-count fastball at the top of the zone, the kind of pitch he’s missed so frequently this season.

“Yeah, that’s encouraging,” said Braves third baseman Austin Riley, whose own 449-foot first-inning homer was just his third of the season and first since April 7, though Riley’s been hitting a lot of loud outs to the warning track lately, something Acuña had not been doing. “I feel like (Acuña’s) been really close, and to pull the fastball up in the zone was nice to see.”

Acuña is batting .258 with a .719 OPS and 39 strikeouts with 18 walks in 30 games. He entered Friday with a 98 OPS+, making him a below a league-average player, which would’ve seemed unfathomable entering the season, even for 30 games. He had 13 strikeouts in 23 at-bats over his past five games before Friday, when he struck out once to end a streak of five multi-strikeout games. Again, that would’ve been hard to believe last year when his dramatically reduced strikeout rate had much to do with his career-best stats across the board.

“It’s a good way to start feeling better again, and that’s how I’ve been feeling lately,” Acuña said through an interpreter, when asked about his home run Friday.

He’s almost halfway to his strikeout total from 2023, when he had 84 with 80 walks in 159 games.

“It’s just getting timed up, is the biggest thing,” Snitker said a couple of hours before Friday’s game, in which Acuña went 2-for-5 and popped out in the infield with a ghost runner at second base to start the 11th. “I can see it coming, gradually, as with a lot of the (Braves’ slumping) guys.

“We’re still kind of young in the season here. As the at-bats pile up, I think things will start happening in his favor.”

Asked about his timing being off, Acuña said, “Some people get ready quicker. But it’s a long season, and it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”

Braves veteran Charlie Morton, who limited the Dodgers to five hits, two runs and two walks in six innings and didn’t figure in the decision, sees Acuña struggles to this point as a timing issue.

“I think his timing’s just a little off,” Morton said. “Because when a guy like that is swinging through balls that he usually hits — not only hits ‘em but hits ‘em hard — it’s more just a timing thing. For me, guys are going to go through ups and downs. Guys are going to get hot, guys are going to get cold. Everybody’s human.”

Keep in mind, Acuña led the NL with a 169 OPS+ in 2023, and had 156 and 158 OPS+, respectively, in the pandemic-shortened 2020 and injury-shortened 2021, when he had season-ending knee surgery in July that slowed him throughout the next season as well. He came back with a vengeance in 2023, better than ever.

Not only had Acuña been late on high-velocity fastballs this season, he also fouled off or missed sliders over the plate, another pitch he punished a year ago. His chase rate outside the zone isn’t up, but his whiff rate has soared — from a career-low 18.7 last season to 31.3 before Friday, which would be the highest of his career.

Still, teammates who’ve seen Acuña for years know how fast he can turn things around, and they think he’ll start pillaging opponents again soon. Like he did against the Dodgers in that late-season series, when he stiff-armed Betts and Freddie Freeman, who had MVP hopes of their own before Acuña took charge in those games.

That’s how good he was in that series, including his grand slam off Lance Lynn in the opener, his 30th of the season, making him the first in history to have 30 homers and 60 steals. The 121.2 mph exit velocity on that dinger was the hardest-hit ball in MLB last year.

It was that kind of otherworldly season for Acuña, 26, who became the fifth member of the hallowed 40-40 club, a club that seemed less hallowed when he became the first and only member of the 40-70 club. No other player has even had 50 steals in a 40-homer season.

The Braves, with 30 games down and 132 to go, are 20-10 and still tied with the rival Philadelphia Phillies for baseball’s best winning percentage, despite early season slumps by Acuña and two other big sluggers, Riley and Matt Olson.

Acuña had two hits and an RBI in Wednesday’s series finale win at Seattle. He also had three strikeouts in that game, his third three-strikeout game in a span of four games — one more three-strikeout game than he had in all of 2023.

In his last 12 games before Friday, he was 12-for-47 (.192) with one extra-base hit, one RBI, 18 strikeouts and a .534 OPS. There were plenty of theories voiced on what was wrong, including that Acuña got behind when he missed two weeks of spring training for irritation of meniscus in his surgically repaired knee.

“I don’t think so,” Snitker said when asked about that possibility prior to Friday’s game. “He got a lot (of spring at-bats) before we started (the season). He’s still good, I feel like he’s added a lot to what we’re doing. He’s scoring a lot of runs, making plays. He’s gonna be fine.”

He had a bloop single on the first pitch of Friday’s game, advanced on a groundout, then was picked off moments before Riley’s homer, a costly mistake. But in the eighth, Acuña looked like himself in the batter’s box and as he rounded the bases. He paused as he approached third, did a little dance step that incited a chorus of boos, then continued on his way.

For one night, at least, Acuña was back.

Sean Murphy inching closer to return

Braves catcher Sean Murphy will hit a few balls off a tee Saturday before the Braves take batting practice at Dodger Stadium, the second time in four days he’ll do drills as he continues his rehab progression from a strained oblique.

The 2023 All-Star has been on the injured list since straining that muscle in his left side while taking a swing in the second game of the season. As frustrated as it’s been taking things cautiously in his rehab — Braves medical staff didn’t clear him to swing a bat until this past week — Murphy understands the reasoning.

The oblique is such a tricky injury that pushing the envelope to get back quickly can lead to a recurrence of the injury and risk having it linger all season. So, he’s followed their protocols and abided by the conservative recovery route. He has been catching bullpen side sessions for more than a week and making firm throws, but the swinging — albeit only easy swings at a couple of balls off the tee before a game at Seattle — was an important next step.

“It was like, do it, and then we’ll wait and see if there’s any aftermath,” Murphy said, referring to potential next-day soreness. “And there wasn’t. It was just low effort, get it going, but the whole point is just checking off boxes. Hopefully we start checking off more in the next couple of days, and then start checking bigger ones off when we get home (Monday).”

Murphy said the performance of catchers Travis d’Arnaud and backup Chadwick Tromp has made it easier for him to stay the course with rehab.

“They’ve been great,” Murphy said. “They’ve got it under control. Both of those guys are doing exactly what they need to do.”

(Photo: Kiyoshi Mio / USA Today)

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