Acuña’s return could provide big impact to Braves lineup

The first place Atlanta Braves are embarking on a critical 10-game road trip. It’s easily the club’s most challenging stretch away from home and it may go a long way toward setting the tone for the second half.

After a disappointing home stand that saw Atlanta lose consecutive series at SunTrust Park for the first time this season, the Braves will be tested against a trio of playoff hopefuls. They’ll have to match firepower with the Cardinals, Yankees and Brewers.

That’s the bad news.

The good news? Ronald Acuña Jr. returns to the Atlanta lineup on Friday in St. Louis.

The rookie phenom has been absent for a month after suffering a mild sprain of the ACL in his left knee in a scary fall behind the first base bag at Fenway Park on May 27. Now he’ll have a chance to bring his considerable power potential to a run-producing spot in the Atlanta lineup.

Acuña took the minor leagues by storm as a 19-year-old in 2017, belting 21 home runs in 139 games across three levels and then adding seven more in 23 games in the Arizona Fall League. His power rated a 60 on the scout’s 20-80 scale. Along with an equal or better hit tool and top of the charts speed, Acuña can impact that game in a variety of ways.

Regardless of where he hits, Acuña makes this lineup better and gives the Braves a potential impact bat at a critical juncture in the schedule.

Freddie Freeman has been the club’s MVP. He may well be the National League MVP for that matter. Nick Markakis has been hot on his heels all season. But now Atlanta’s offense has a chance to get back to full strength as their schedule gets challenging.

Even though they lost back-to-back series to Baltimore and Cincinnati, this is not a team that is falling apart at the seams. There are pitching questions, but the Braves have typically scored enough runs to at least keep themselves in most games.

However, the lineup has taken a step back after a hot start.

The intriguing part about Acuña’s return is that he won’t simply be slotting back into his familiar No. 2 spot in the order. Instead, manager Brian Snitker plans to utilize Acuña’s power to complement the middle of the order.

“There were different circumstances when he was here before,” Snitker said this week. “We’ll just wait and see when he gets here, but right now just looking at it, I’d probably say that he’ll hit down more in the middle than up top because I kind of like what we got up there right now.”

Ender Inciarte and Ozzie Albies currently occupy the first two spots in the lineup, just as they were prior to Acuña’s initial arrival in late April.

Inciarte and Albies add an exhilarating dimension to the Atlanta offense that simply was not present in recent years. Their combination speed and instincts on the base paths has routinely caught other teams by surprise and left them scrambling to make a play.

“You put a lot of pressure on teams, and they know that,” said Snitker. “These guys are taking the extra base and coming out of the box looking for two… We’ve talked about since spring training our base running being a weapon.”

Want some proof? Inciarte and Albies combined to score 16 runs in the last six games.

With that duo’s production suddenly trending in the right direction, the Braves will get a chance to audition Acuña in the heart of the order. It’s a place that could use a little help at the moment.

For the first time all season, Freeman finds himself in a bit of a funk at the plate. He went 4-for-25 with 10 strikeouts during the recent home stand and is batting just .184 with one homer and 6 RBI in his last 12 games. This comes after Freeman hit safely in 26 of 27 games.

“As much as Nick (Markakis) and I want to be good, 162 games is not going to happen,” said Freeman.

“We’re all going to go through our little stretches of not doing what we want to do,” he added. “But when you’ve got guys like Charlie Culberson, Ozzie’s come back, Ender is starting to hit, Kurt (Suzuki) has been fantastic all year, Johan’s big hits, that’s how you win ballgames and how you get to the playoffs.

“You can’t count on the same guys every single day. That’s what good teams do, find ways to win. That’s what we’re doing right now.”

While Freeman is a candidate to break out at any time, he would certainly benefit from a little bit of table-setting from the top of the order. That’s something that’s been problematic this season.

Despite the good play of Inciarte and Albies lately, Braves lead-off men rank 29th in MLB with a .286 on-base percentage and their two-hitters have a composite .305 OBP which ranks 27th.

Simply put, Atlanta needs Inciarte and Albies to get hot and stay hot for a while.

“As the top of the lineup goes, you go, and that’s the case for us,” said Freeman. “Ender’s been fantastic the last couple of weeks. Obviously Ozzie’s last couple of games is what we’ve been used to. Hopefully, Nick and I can get going again and hopefully we can start scoring some more runs.”

Snitker has been forced to mix and match, moving his top two hitters around more than he anticipated when the season began. That’s been done to both counteract some struggles and create consistency in front of Freeman and Markakis.

But unlike years past, the Braves offense is not wholly dependent on Freeman’s bat to carry it.

Atlanta tops the NL in total bases and runs scored, ranks second in extra-base hits, third in on-base percentage and is next-to-last in strikeouts. All of those are positive trends and underscore the fact that it’s not just Freeman doing all the work.

This lineup has teeth.

“We still compete and put ourselves in positon to win games,” said Snitker. “It’s not just about (Freeman) and it hasn’t been all year. We’ve talked about that all year that everybody has contributed in their own way.”

Albies has been the most surprising of Atlanta’s starting nine. The switch-hitting second baseman has shattered offensive expectations and is in line to earn All-Star honors in his first full season in the majors.

Though he hasn’t been immune to ups and downs, Albies is back on the upswing. He has 14 hits in his last 26 at-bats and posted five consecutive multi-hit contests. That boosted his average from .249 to .271 in a span five days.

He’s belted 17 homers and leads the NL with 45 extra-base hits, 26 doubles, 61 runs scored and 173 total bases. That’s quite a season for a 5-foot-8 middle infielder who began the season as the youngest player in the major leagues.

“He’s been doing it all year,” Markakis said of Albies. “Everybody is going to have their ups and downs, but he’s positive. Every day he comes in, he works and he’s constantly making adjustments.

“Once you play in the league a little bit, guys get a better understanding of what you’re up there trying to do. It’s all about making adjustments back. He slumped there for a little while. Everybody does, but he’s been tremendous for us all year and it seems like he’s getting back on track now.”

Markakis should know a little bit about that whole adjustment thing. He’s been around the league for 13 years now, but is on track to make his first All-Star game. Markakis is batting .326 and became the first NL player to reach the 100-hit plateau during the recent home stand.

All of this offense has given the Braves a chance to win. Putting Acuña back in the mix on a nightly basis could be just the thing to kickstart the order again.

Though the pitching is another discussion entirely, Atlanta’s unexpectedly prolific run-scoring is one of the biggest surprises in baseball this season.

“We walk into these doors every single day with the chance to win,” said Freeman. “Can’t say that the last few years and that’s the big difference.

“When you have 25 guys with confidence going into every single night, this is what happens. No matter what the score is, we still know we can come back and win games.”

That optimism is a shared quality and extends to the final out each night. It comes with what their manager describes as a “quiet confidence” in the dugout.

“We went from I used to come in and hope we won to expecting to now,” said Snitker. “You start a game and you expect to win, which is a big difference in what we used to do.

“We’re a better team… I think it’s shown that these guys will fight and grind and try and find a way to win if you give them the opportunity.”

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