John Amis/Associated Press
The Atlanta Braves‘ season is on the brink.
They’re one loss away from oblivion. Or, at least one loss away from watching the remainder of the 2018 postseason from their couches.
Thanks to the fence-clearing exploits of budding 20-year-old superstar Ronald Acuna Jr., the Braves live to fight another day.
Oblivion can wait. Acuna can’t.
After failing to score in the first two games of their National League Division Series matchup against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta looked like a young team that had overachieved and was now in over its head against a more experienced postseason foe.
Yes, they won the National League East outright, as virtually no one predicted. Then they were shut out in consecutive contests by Hyun-Jin Ryu, Clayton Kershaw and L.A.’s seasoned October contingent.
The Braves’ bats were dormant. Their hopes were plummeting.
In a must-win Game 3 at SunTrust Park, Acuna blasted a grand slam in a five-run second inning that injected life into the series. It didn’t single-handedly rescue Atlanta’s season, but it sure helped.
With his seismic swing, Acuna became the youngest player ever to hit a grand slam in postseason history, per SportsCenter:
Ronald Acuña Jr. with the grand slam 🔥🔥🔥🔥 He’s the youngest player in postseason history with a grand slam, at 20 years, 293 days old. https://t.co/kLDD9nDAL3
The guy he eclipsed in the youngest-postseason-grand-salami category? Some dude named Mickey Mantle.
Yeah. Let that sink in.
It wasn’t easy for Atlanta, even with Acuna’s Mantle-esque heroics.
The Dodgers plated two runs in the third inning and three more in the fifth to tie the game before veteran Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman broke the tie with a solo homer in the sixth that proved to be the difference.
It was a nice reminder for a team that blossomed ahead of schedule behind a youthful core: Sometimes you need the old guys, with “old” being defined here as the 29-year-old Freeman.
But he is old compared to Acuna, who won’t reach legal U.S. drinking age until Dec. 18.
“These guys don’t come around very often. They really don’t,” Freeman said of his teammate, per ESPN.com’s Jerry Crasnick. “What he’s doing is kind of eye-popping, really. It leaves you saying, ‘Wow, he does something every day that is special.'”
The toolsy Venezuelan hit .432 this spring with a 1.247 OPS and appeared more than ready to take on MLB pitching. But Acuna began the season in the minors with a nod to baseball’s controversial service-time rules.
He didn’t stay down for long. Acuna made his Braves debut on April 25. He tallied six hits in his first 13 at-bats, including a home run and two doubles.
He’d arrived, no ifs, ands or buts.
Yes, he dipped a bit in May, hitting .235 with a .677 OPS in the calendar month. In the end, however, he hit .293 with 26 home runs and tied for the lead among all rookies with 3.7 WAR, according to FanGraphs’ measure.
In the Senior Circuit, he tied with Washington Nationals outfielder Juan Soto, which should at least make the NL Rookie of the Year race interesting. Considering the Braves made the playoffs while the division-rival Nats stayed home, though, the safe money is on Acuna earning the hardware.
Right now, he’s got grander designs.
Harry How/Getty Images
Los Angeles was in control after the first two games of this division series. The Braves were a nice story, a scrappy underdog crashing the party ahead of schedule. But it was time for the Dodgers to march forward while Atlanta waited its turn, or so the narrative went.
That might still happen, perhaps as soon as Monday. But not if Acuna has anything to say about it.
“He’s breathed life into us,” manager Brian Snitker said, per Crasnick. “He’s brought that energy and excitement and confidence to our whole team. His legs, the defense, the arm, the whole thing.”
Will the whole thing keep them from the brink? Are there more Mantle-evoking exploits in store?
All statistics current entering Monday and courtesy of FanGraphs.