Acuna sparks lineup in lead­off spot; Cul­ber­son homers

Calhoun Times - - SPORTS WEDNESDAY - By Mark Bow­man

— Nearly three months af­ter his much-an­tic­i­pated ar­rival and a few weeks re­moved from his month­long dis­abled list stint, Ron­ald Acuna Jr. may now be in po­si­tion to be the difference maker the Braves need to make a strong run at a di­vi­sion crown.

Dis­play­ing the tools that earned him the honor of en­ter­ing this sea­son as MLB Pipe­line’s top over­all prospect, Acuna gladly ac­cepted his first as­sign­ment in the lead­off spot and put on a show dur­ing Fri­day night’s 8-5 win over Stephen Stras­burg and the Na­tion­als at Na­tion­als Park. The 20- year- old phe­nom fin­ished a triple shy of the cy­cle and be­came the youngest player of the mod­ern era (since 1900) to homer and steal two bases in a game, ac­cord­ing to Elias Sports Bureau.

“When I first saw him in Spring Training, I felt he was one of the best young play­ers I’ve seen at that age,” said Char­lie Cul­ber­son, who home­red in the vic­tory. “He’s a five-tool player. He’s fun to watch, and it looks like he’s get­ting back in his groove.”

Acuna capped the fifth three-hit game of his young ca­reer with an eighth-in­ning solo shot that served as an ex­cla­ma­tion point for the Braves, who re­main a half-game be­hind the Na­tional League Eastlead­ing Phillies de­spite stum­bling at the end of the first half. By sweep­ing this se­ries, they would strengthen their po­si­tion as buy­ers and cre­ate some Trade Dead­line un­cer­tainty for the third- place Na­tion­als, who sit 6 1/2 games out.

“I def­i­nitely felt more com­fort­able tonight,” Acuna said through an in­ter­preter. “I was start­ing to feel more com­fort­able as the first half was com­ing to a close. I was mak­ing some ad­just­ments with the me­chan­ics of my swing. For­tu­nately, I’ve been able to adapt.”

While it was ex­pected the Braves would open the sec­ond half with some­one other than En­der In­cia­rte as the lead­off hit­ter, Snitker pro­vided some­what of a sur­prise when he tabbed Acuna, who had hit .212 (11-for-52) with a .255 on-base per­cent­age since re­turn­ing on June 29 from the lengthy stint ne­ces­si­tated by a strained left an­te­rior cru­ci­ate lig­a­ment.

But it didn’t take long for the dy­namic out­fielder to make a difference. He sin­gled dur­ing a two-run first and dou­bled dur­ing a three­run fifth that chased Stras­burg, who al­lowed six runs and eight hits over 4 2/3 innings. The Na­tion­als right-han­der has lasted fewer than five innings in eight of 30 ca­reer starts against the Braves.

“[ Acuna] looked like he did in Spring Training,” Snitker said. “He set the ta­ble for us all night. It was re­ally good. He had some re­ally good at-bats. He was kind of a dif­fer­ent guy there. He was swing­ing the bat re­ally well.”

Acuna showed off his speed as he dou­bled his sea­son to­tal with a pair of stolen bases. He swiped sec­ond ahead of the first-in­ning RBI dou­ble pro­duced by Ozzie Al­bies, who promptly stole third and scored on Fred­die Free­man’s ground­out. But the All-Star sec­ond base­man tweaked his right ham­string dur­ing this trip around the bases and made a pre­cau­tion­ary exit in the third in­ning.

Al­bies will likely miss the re­main­der of this se­ries and seems ques­tion­able for a twogame set that be­gins Mon­day in Mi­ami. But with Acuna, the Braves at least have half of a duo with the po­ten­tial this sec­ond half to show why it may al­ready be the Ma­jors’ most dy­namic.

“To be the player that ev­ery­body wants, he’s in the process,” Braves vet­eran pitcher Ani­bal Sanchez said of Acuna. “But the way he is right now, en­joy­ing the game, be­ing healthy and putting up those num­bers, it’s re­ally, re­ally im­pres­sive.”

MOMENTS THAT MAT­TERED

Sanchez’s will­ing­ness to pro­vide in­struc­tion to younger starters has been in­valu­able, but his most im­por­tant les­son might have been de­liv­ered on Fri­day, when the hurler to­taled 52 pitches through the first two innings and still man­aged to al­low just three runs over six frames.

The Na­tion­als seemed primed to strike when a Matt Wi­eters dou­ble, a Stras­burg sin­gle and an Adam Ea­ton walk loaded the bases with just one out in the sec­ond. But Sanchez got Trea Turner to look at a 1-2 cut­ter on the inside cor­ner and then es­caped un­scathed with a Bryce Harper ground­out.

“He never stops pitch­ing,” Snitker said. “Ev­ery pitch is a big deal for him. He has a pur­pose for ev­ery one and he doesn’t give in. He trusts his stuff. In the be­gin­ning, I was think­ing maybe we can get him through four [innings].”

SOUND SMART

Na­tion­als 19- yearold out­fielder Juan Soto cre­ated more his­tory when he hit a two-run homer in the eighth against Jesse Bid­dle. Ac­cord­ing to Elias, Soto and Acuna are the first op­pos­ing play­ers to homer in the same game be­fore turn­ing 21 since Egyp­tian Healy of the In­di­anapo­lis Hoosiers and Mike Tier­nan of the New York Gi­ants did so on May 19, 1887.

NATS KILLER

Stras­burg and the Na­tion­als are well aware of why Free­man is ar­guably the top can­di­date for the NL MVP Award. The Braves first base­man de­liv­ered a two-run dou­ble dur­ing the fifth and is hit­ting .333 (30-for-90) with a 1.080 OPS against Wash­ing­ton since the start of the 2017 sea­son.

Free­man has hit .354 (17-for-48) with five dou­bles and four homers in his ca­reer against Stras­burg.

SU­SAN WALSH / The As­so­ci­ated Press

At­lanta’s Char­lie Cul­ber­son slides home for a run dur­ing the fifth in­ning of Fri­day’s game against the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als.

SU­SAN WALSH / The As­so­ci­ated Press

At­lanta’s Ron­ald Acuna, Jr. (right) slides into sec­ond for a stolen base dur­ing Fri­day’s game.

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