Nola’s strug­gles con­tinue as Phillies fall

Race for play­off po­si­tion grows more pre­car­i­ous as Braves clinch tie in East

The Morning Call - - SPORTS - By Paul New­berry

Ron­ald Acuna Jr. was pumped to join a very ex­clu­sive club.

He’s even more thrilled about the chance to prop­erly cel­e­brate a divi­sion ti­tle.

Acuna be­came the se­cond-youngest player in base­ball his­tory to hit 40 homers in a sea­son, Fred­die Free­man also drove in two runs and the At­lanta Braves clinched at least a tie for first place in the NL East with a 5-4 vic­tory over the Philadel­phia Phillies on Thurs­day.

“That’s the most ex­cit­ing thing up to this point,” Acuna said through a trans­la­tor. “That’s what we’re all look­ing for. I think for all of us, it’s just come out with that same en­ergy, that same en­thu­si­asm, get that win and hope­fully cel­e­brate. That’s some­thing we’re all look­ing for­ward to.”

With eight games left in the reg­u­lar sea­son, a se­cond straight divi­sion ti­tle seems a for­mal­ity for the Braves. They hold a 9 1/2-game lead over the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als, who have played three fewer games and were off Thurs­day.

The Braves can of­fi­cially let loose as soon as Fri­day with either a vic­tory over the San Fran­cisco Gi­ants or if Wash­ing­ton loses at Mi­ami.

This time around, Acuna can take part in a cham­pagne toast.

He wasn’t yet of le­gal age when the Braves won the East a year ago.

“They wouldn’t let me drink be­cause I was a mi­nor,” Acuna re­called, break­ing into a big mile. “This year, it’s go­ing to be dif­fer­ent. I’m look­ing for­ward to it.”

Af­ter win­ning the first two games of the se­ries, Philadel­phia’s post­sea­son hopes took an­other blow. The Phillies came into the day trail­ing both Mil­wau­kee and the Chicago Cubs by three games for the NL’s se­cond wild-card spot.

“We’ve still got a chance,” Bryce Harper in­sisted.

Acuna’s his­toric homer came with a flour­ish. He launched a 432-foot drive into the se­cond deck at SunTrust Park,

stand­ing at home plate to ad­mire his shot off Aaron Nola be­fore toss­ing the bat away and slowly round­ing the bases.

Mel Ott, who was 20 when he hit 42 homers for the New York Gi­ants in 1940, is the only player younger than Acuna to post a 40-homer sea­son. Ed­die Mathews also was 21 but about two months older than Acuna when he hit 47 homers for the Mil­wau­kee Braves in 1953.

Ott and Mathews are both mem­bers of the Base­ball Hall of Fame.

“It feels in­cred­i­ble,” Acuna said. “To be com­pared to su­per­stars and Hall of Famers like that, espe­cially at such a young age, wow.”

The young­ster had gone five games since hit­ting his 39th homer.

“He might re­lax now and re­ally go off,” man­ager Brian Snitker said. “That’s an un­be­liev­able ac­com­plish­ment at this stage of his ca­reer.”

Acuna is still three stolen bases shy of an­other mile­stone. He has 37 steals in his quest to be­come just the fifth 40-40 player in base­ball his­tory, fol­low­ing Jose Canseco (1988), Barry Bonds (1996), Alex Ro­driguez (1998) and Al­fonso So­ri­ano (2006).

“Only four other play­ers have achieved that with all the peo­ple who’ve played in the big leagues over the years,” Acuna said. “It would be amaz­ing.”

Af­ter Acuna’s homer put the Braves ahead, Philadel­phia pulled even in the fifth.

Adam Hase­ley drove a run-scor­ing dou­ble to right off Mike Soroka, took third on Nola’s sin­gle and came in to score on Ce­sar Her­nan­dez’s force­out.

But Free­man re­claimed the lead for At­lanta in the bot­tom half when Free­man ripped a one-out sin­gle to right off Nola (12-6) to bring home Matt Joyce and Acuna.

Joyce got the in­ning started with a pinch-hit sin­gle bat­ting for Soroka (13-4), who was lifted af­ter 88 pitches in one of his fi­nal tune­ups for the post­sea­son Soroka sur­ren­dered five hits, struck out five and didn’t walk any­one.

Nola worked five-plus in­nings. Philadel­phia cut the lead to 4-3 in the sixth, but Austin Ri­ley an­swered with his 18th homer of the sea­son off the Phillies right-han­der lead­ing off the bot­tom half. Nola gave up nine hits, two hits and all five At­lanta runs.

Philadel­phia loaded the bases with one out in the eighth off Shane Greene but only man­aged one run on Scott Kingery’s sac­ri­fice fly.

Mark Me­lan­con worked per­fect ninth for his 11th save with At­lanta and 12th over­all this sea­son.

KEVIN C. COX/GETTY

Bryce Harper re­acts af­ter fly­ing out to lead off the eighth in­ning against the Braves on Thurs­day in At­lanta. The Phillies fell 5-4.

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