WASHINGTON — At the ripe old age of 20, Ronald Acuna Jr. is anything but washed up.
In the Atlanta Braves‘ 8-3 win over the Washington Nationals on Wednesday, Acuna stole the show from Juan Soto, the Nationals’ 19-year-old rookie who has been getting loads of love over the past couple of months. In the process, both he and the Braves made a statement that they’re not going anywhere anytime soon.
Serving as Atlanta’s leadoff hitter, the speedy Acuna singled in the top of third inning, then escaped what appeared to be a successful pickoff move by Nats starter Tommy Milone, dashing to second base and sliding in safely.
In his next at-bat in the top of the fourth, the Venezuelan rookie pounced on an 87-mph four-seam fastball from Milone and sent it flying well beyond the wall in dead center, where it landed 452 feet from home plate for a two-run homer.
As if that weren’t enough, in the bottom half of that frame, the Braves outfielder robbed Washington slugger Matt Adams by leaping at the 402-foot sign in center and making an acrobatic grab of a deep fly that looked like it was headed over the fence.
The standout two-way performance provided a reminder that, despite Soto winning back-to-back rookie of the month honors in June and July, Acuna is one of the most exciting and impactful young players in the game. It also helped the upstart Braves serve notice that they’re not about to disappear in the dog days of summer.
It didn’t necessarily look that way early on in a four-game series between NL East rivals. The Braves lost the opener of a doubleheader on Tuesday, then fell behind ace Max Scherzer and the Nats in the nightcap. They were able to claw back though, scoring twice in the ninth inning to earn a split.
On Wednesday, the Braves got down early again as All-Star Mike Foltynewicz labored through a 35-pitch first inning, his longest opening frame of the season. But Atlanta stormed back, homering three times off Milone in the first four innings to support Foltynewicz, who settled down to pick up his ninth win of the season.
Matt Adams goes deep to center field, but Ronald Acuna Jr. is there to make a tough snag at the wall in center field.
“They’ve been resilient,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker, whose surprising squad suffered through a 5-13 stretch in July that dropped them from 3½ games up in the NL East to 2.5 games back. Since then, they’ve won eight of 10 to move within a half-game of the first-place Phillies.
Somewhere in the middle of all that, GM Alex Anthopoulos swung a trio of trades that netted Atlanta a starting pitcher (Kevin Gausman), a pair or relievers (Brad Brach, Jonny Venters) and a power bat (Adam Duvall). Perhaps more importantly, the deals sent a message that the Braves aren’t content with merely exceeding projections this season — they’re in it to win it. And that’s exactly what they did on Wednesday in Washington, thanks in no small part to their 20-year-old rookie phenom.
“Our goal is to make the playoffs,” said Acuna, who was considered the top prospect in baseball prior to this season. On Wednesday, he looked every bit the part. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, he became the first player this year to hit a homer and rob a homer in the same inning. Acuna’s heroics were in stark contrast to Soto, who had one of the more nightmarish games of his young career.
In the fourth inning, the Nationals left fielder went down looking on a borderline full-count pitch that he felt was a ball. When he stepped to the plate for his next at-bat in the sixth inning, right after Bryce Harper went opposite field for his 28th jack of the season, plate umpire Greg Gibson ejected Soto before the first pitch was even thrown. Adding injury to insult, in the next inning, Harper got plunked in the knee area for the second time in the past four days.
“It was just a rough day,” said skipper Davey Martinez, whose Nats were expected to win their third straight division title but have been one of the biggest disappointments in baseball. With Wednesday’s loss to the Braves, they fell to six games behind Philly and are 58-56 on the season. Heading into Thursday’s 1:05 p.m. finale, they’ve won just six of 15 contests against Atlanta. “We’ve got to come back tomorrow fired up.”
As for the Braves, the significance of how they’ve handled Washington the past couple of days is hardly lost on them.
“It’s huge,” Foltynewicz said. “The Nationals are right on our butts. It’s always great to split a doubleheader, and then to come in tonight and get a W, that’s even bigger. There’s still a lot of baseball left to be played. These guys aren’t going to go away.”
Apparently, neither is Atlanta.