Ronald Acuña Jr. hits game-winning homer vs. Phillies

Mark Bowman

By Mark Bowman

ATLANTA — Ronald Acuña Jr. was back in right field and his good friend Ozzie Albies was back in the lineup for the first time in three months. All seemed right for the Braves as they further energized what has been this year’s best pennant race.

Acuña stirred a sold-out crowd when he fueled a six-run eighth with a thunderous go-ahead homer that led the Braves to a 7-2 win over the Phillies on Friday night at Truist Park. The two-run opposite-field shot was a reminder of how special the young outfielder can be when he is feeling healthy.

“We’re talking about the best player in the league,” Braves designated hitter William Contreras said through an interpreter. “Thank God he’s on our team. He brings energy to us.”

As Acuña has dealt with the lingering effects of the major right knee surgery he underwent last year, he hasn’t performed like he’s the game’s best player. But as he belted his game-winning homer off Phillies reliever Seranthony Domínguez, he enhanced hope that he’s getting healthy at just the right time.

“Ronald started swinging the bat really well on the road trip,” manager Brian Snitker said. “You never know, something like that could really get him going.”

With the eighth-inning uprising, the Braves remained just one game behind the first-place Mets in the National League East. Acuña smiled when asked about being part of a pennant race again. He was forced to watch from afar last year after tearing his right ACL on July 10, 2021.

“We’re gearing up for the playoffs,” Acuña said through an interpreter. “We’re ready. We feel ready.”

Enhancing the Braves’ confidence will be the presence of Albies, who had been sidelined since fracturing his left foot on June 13. The two-time All-Star second baseman got a standing ovation when he returned from the injured list on Friday, and he celebrated the occasion by capping the eighth with a two-run double.

Snitker enjoyed penciling Albies back into his lineup and it was encouraging to see Acuña play consecutive games in right field for the first time since Aug. 26. Acuña spent most of September’s first two weeks serving as the designated hitter to take stress off his bothersome right knee. This move gave the 24-year-old outfielder a chance to get healthier for the stretch run and October.

But the Braves were weakened both offensively and defensively when using Acuña as the DH. Along with missing a great glove and arm in right field, the defending World Series champs also lost the ability to consistently keep Contreras’ bat in the lineup on the days when he wasn’t catching.

“I feel like the pains and aches went away,” Acuña said. “I hope they stay away, because as great as it was to be able to DH, it was a little boring, to be honest. I like to be in the field, and hopefully, I can keep going out there every day.”

With Acuña back in right field, Contreras filled the DH role and contributed three hits in the win over the Phillies. His fourth-inning solo homer off Ranger Suárez accounted for Atlanta’s only run until the eighth, which began with Domínguez walking Eddie Rosario, who was honoring fellow Puerto Rican Roberto Clemente by wearing a No. 21 jersey.

Contreras has hit .279 with 18 homers and an .870 OPS in just 312 plate appearances this year. As the young catcher has homered once every 15.6 at-bats, he has helped lengthen a lineup that is at its best when Acuña is feeling strong and healthy.

Acuña has hit .269 with 12 homers and a .764 OPS this season, but he has batted just .252 with a .688 OPS in 73 games going back to June 13. The Braves may need to keep him healthy by occasionally using him as a DH another couple times down the stretch. But there’s no doubt the team is at its best when Acuña is in the field.

“It’s one of those things, if someone is hot and we need to get them in the lineup, I’m going to run out there to right field in pain or without pain,” Acuña said. “I’m ready to do whatever we need to do to have the best lineup out there.”

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