WASHINGTON — With their biggest series of the season just on the horizon, the Braves don’t need to worry any longer about Ronald Acuña Jr.’s health. Their superstar leadoff hitter is just fine, and clicking at the plate again at just the right time.
Atlanta leaned on a resurgent game from Acuña and surged into a tie with the Mets for the NL East lead Tuesday night by virtue of their 8-2 win over the Nationals in the nation’s capital. Acuña homered twice in the Braves’ latest thrashing of the Nats — their franchise record-tying 14th win over Washington this season — while the Mets lost to the Marlins, 6-4, at home.
The Braves watched on TV from the visiting clubhouse at Nationals Park as Miami finished things off in Queens, bringing the NL East to a dead heat for the first time since Sept. 6. Now only one game remains before what could be a division-deciding three-game matchup between Atlanta and the Mets beginning Friday at Truist Park (weather permitting).
“The hope is to win tomorrow, and then the hope is to have a good series against New York this weekend,” Acuña said through a translator. “It feels like the division is on the line there.”
Hugs and handshakes.
The @Braves have once again tied the Mets at the top of the NL East. pic.twitter.com/0tMzjM3D8i
The Braves arrived in D.C. this week trailing the Mets by 1 1/2 games in the division and looking to stack wins ahead of that enormous series. They’ve done just that. They were honored at the White House for their 2021 World Series title on Monday before they went out and beat Washington handily, gaining a half-game on the idle Mets. Then on Tuesday, Atlanta stormed back from an early two-run hole behind three homers and another big night from Michael Harris II for another lopsided win, their 97th, with seven regular-season games left to play.
“We’ve been through spells before and always seem to have a way of fighting out of it, coming back,” manager Brian Snitker said. “The only thing we can control is today.”
The Braves conclude this series Wednesday night at Nationals Park, while the Mets finish their two-game set against the Marlins in Queens.
“It’s almost like I can feel October right around the corner,” said Eddie Rosario, the reigning NLCS MVP who contributed a key two-run double to Tuesday’s win. “The playoffs are coming, and everything changes. We are focused on winning, and we know the series coming up is the one we’ll keep an eye on.”
Then the fun really begins.
For the Braves, it’s already started. They’ve won four straight overall and 14 of 18 against the Nationals this season. And they are delighted that the uncertainty over Acuña’s ailing back that forced him from the lineup last weekend ended up being only a short-term issue.
The multi-homer game was the ninth of Acuña’s career and his second this season. He followed Orlando Arcia’s go-ahead homer in the fifth with a 112 mph solo shot of his own, then he crushed a 407-foot solo shot off Mason Thompson in the seventh. Harris tripled home two runs and scored two more to help the Braves survive an abbreviated start from rookie spot starter (and No. 1 prospect) Kyle Muller.
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But as he’s prone to do, Acuña stole the show. And the stage is about to get much brighter.
“We all know how talented he is,” Nats starter Paolo Espino said. “He can hit the ball out whenever, he can run, he can do everything. We all know how good of a player he is. So every now and then, you’ve got to be cautious. Maybe I tried to be a little too fine, and that made me make that one mistake up the middle.”
Acuña’s status for this week was questionable after he missed three games last week with back problems, and his right knee is always a concern following last year’s reconstruction surgery. But his back seemed perfectly fine during and after the big swings, as he pumped both arms over his head when he rounded second after his second blast.
He also showed off his elite athleticism making a shoestring catch in right field to end the eighth, covering 99 feet (per Statcast) on the play without restriction.
“That looked like the old Ronald right there,” Snitker said. “He’s moving around like he’s feeling pretty good, knock on wood.”
Said Acuña: “I’m progressing, definitely. I feel like I’m just getting better and feeling better.”