Ronald Acuna's energy sparked Braves' push into postseason

In addition to being a dynamic force at the plate, on the bases and in the field, Ronald Acuna Jr. has boosted the Braves with his exuberance and confidence. Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Freddie Freeman was behind the curve in his personal Ronald Acuna Jr. scouting report, if only because it took so long for the two of them to play in the same sandbox.

When Acuna showed up at the Atlanta Braves' spring training camp in 2017, Freeman was aware of the kid's rave reviews in the minors and the Australian Baseball League.

But they were essentially strangers beyond the clubhouse. Freeman took his batting practice hacks with Nick Markakis, Tyler Flowers and the Atlanta veterans while Acuna got in his work on a different field with the younger players. Once the Grapefruit League games began, Freeman would log his three at-bats, shower, dress and be gone by the time Acuna came off the bench and wowed the fans who had lingered in the sweltering sun at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Florida.

So it was a bit of an awakening for Freeman when Acuna went 3-for-3 against the New York Yankees and launched a home run off Masahiro Tanaka in early March. It can be a tired trope when baseball people talk about how the ball sounds different coming off certain players' bats, but that was a common sentiment in Atlanta's camp.

"It sounds like he's hitting rocks," said Walt Weiss, the Braves' bench coach. "Andres Galarraga's bat made that same sound when I played with him in Colorado."

Ralph Garr, the venerable and beloved Roadrunner, added to the hype in March when he said Acuna had a little Hank Aaron to his game.

After watching Acuna hit .432 with a 1.247 OPS this spring, Freeman had seen enough to be convinced the kid was legit. From there, it was just a matter of waiting until the Braves summoned Acuna from Triple-A Gwinnett in April and turned him loose at SunTrust Park.

By late summer, after Acuna had set records, enthralled fans and set the tone for his team out of the leadoff spot, Freeman was overjoyed by the thought of having a five-tool phenom as a long-term playmate.

"These guys don't come around very often. They really don't," Freeman said. "What he's doing is kind of eye-popping, really. It leaves you saying, 'Wow, he does something every day that is special.' For him to be 20 years old and have this big an impact this fast, he's just getting started. It's going to be a fun career to watch."

Combine the steadying influence of Freeman with the talent and exuberance of Acuna, second baseman Ozzie Albies and third baseman Johan Camargo, waves of pitching and one of the league's best developmental pipelines, and it leads to one inevitable conclusion: The Braves expect to make October baseball a habit in Atlanta.

"With what we have here and is still to come, I think you're gonna be having playoff talks and interviews with us, with the Atlanta Braves, for a long time to come," Freeman said. "I think we're not going anywhere."

"These guys don't come around very often. They really don't. What he's doing is kind of eye-popping, really. It leaves you saying, 'Wow, he does something every day that is special.'" Freddie Freeman

Eight months ago, in spring training, prognosticators widely assumed that the Braves and Phillies were a year away from contention, and that Washington would ride Bryce Harper's farewell tour and a rosterwide sense of urgency to a fourth National League East title in five seasons. Alex Anthopoulos, Atlanta's new general manager, took a cautious approach during the offseason and confined his acquisitions to a Chris Stewart and a Peter Moylan here and a Peter Bourjos and a Ryan Flaherty there. Even Anibal Sanchez, who has been a revelation for the Braves this season, signed a minor league deal for a base salary of $1 million late in spring training after being released by the Minnesota Twins.

Anthopoulos put his faith in the kids and let them play and develop. He held firm and stuck with Camargo rather than trade for Mike Moustakas or an established third baseman at the July 31 deadline. And his big deadline acquisition -- pitcher Kevin Gausman -- is under club control through 2020, so he was acquired with more than just this season in mind.

No Atlanta player understands the tug of war between patience and instant gratification better than Freeman, who has seen both sides since his arrival in Atlanta in 2011. As a rookie, he played for an 89-win team led by Chipper Jones, Tim Hudson, Martin Prado and Brian McCann. The Braves signed him to an eight-year, $135 million extension in the spring of 2014, and Freeman has validated the investment with the third-best OPS among MLB first basemen (.907), behind Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt, in that span. But after consecutive seasons of 79, 67, 68 and 72 wins, Freeman was ready for something more than incremental progress and hope rooted in a smorgasbord of talent on the farm.

Acuna's coming-out party was always more a question of "when" than "if." He showed flashes of brilliance in his first month with the Braves, but he didn't begin to take flight until he returned from a month-long hiatus because of a knee injury in late June. Manager Brian Snitker inserted him in the leadoff spot in Atlanta's first game after the All-Star break, and Acuna methodically began picking off historical figures of various stature.

Acuna's eight homers out of the leadoff spot broke the Atlanta franchise record set by Marquis Grissom in 1996, and he joined Eddie Mathews, Orlando Cepeda, Al Kaline, Tony Conigliaro, Frank Robinson and Mel Ott as one of seven players to record at least 25 home runs in a single season before their 21st birthday.

"He's breathed life into us," Snitker said. "He's brought that energy and excitement and confidence to our whole team. His legs, the defense, the arm, the whole thing. He's given us a tremendous lift since he's been here."

It was no wonder that Florida's Jose Urena precipitated a 17-minute bench-clearing incident when he drilled Acuna in the back with a fastball on Aug. 16 after Acuna had led off three straight games with a home run. The Atlanta players were outraged that Urena would trifle with Acuna's health off pure machismo, and the incident elicited widespread condemnation from Braves fans and non-Braves fans alike on social media.

Acuna plays the game with a self-confidence that his teammates readily abide and a work ethic they respect, but his approach to the game might take some getting used to by the old guard. During spring training, a mini-controversy arose over the way he wore his cap, and he received an impromptu lesson in "respecting the game" from former Braves center fielder Andruw Jones.

During a group interview session in Philadelphia last week, Acuna was asked which big leaguer his game most resembles."Jose Reyes," he replied. That's understandable, given that Reyes' father and Acuna's father, Ronald Sr., were teammates and close friends in the Mets' minor league system in 2001 and 2002.

Based on the assessments of others, he should aim higher. Freeman recently told Atlanta reporters that Acuna can be the National League's answer to Mike Trout. He's not backing away from that assessment.

"He hits the ball so hard," Freeman said. "I can only dream of hitting the ball that hard, and he does it with ease. He makes solid contact almost every single time. Obviously, Mike takes a lot more walks, but I think Ronald is going to grow into it. From what we've seen over the last couple of months, he's been taking his walks and making the pitchers pitch to him. To even compare him to Mike Trout is tough to do, but he has the potential to be that good."

Garr's spring training Aaron comparison was even more of an eye-opener, given Hammerin' Hank's legendary status in Atlanta and throughout the game. When Acuna was away from the team and rehabbing his knee in June, he ran into Aaron at SunTrust Park and had a conversation or two with the Hall of Famer. The encounters made an indelible impression on him.

"That's not just a superstar for the Braves," Acuna said through Braves team interpreter Franco Garcia. "That's a superstar for the whole league. To be compared to a superstar like that is a tremendous honor. I think more than anything, it motivates me to keep improving and keep working to get better."

The Atlanta veterans, to their credit, have created a nurturing environment that has allowed the young players to thrive. Markakis, catchers Kurt Suzuki and Flowers, and others were open-minded enough to allow Acuna and Albies to show some personality and flair rather than stuff them in a box under the adage that young players should be seen and not heard. Major League Baseball has selected Acuna to be part of an All-Star team that's traveling to Japan in November, so the marketing people clearly understand the value of a young supertalent as an international goodwill ambassador for the game.

When the best player in the Atlanta organization is on board with the program, it helps to reinforce the message.

"I feel like we have a great mix," Freeman said. "You don't want to create a clubhouse where they feel like they have to be chill. If you want to go turn on your music and blare it, that's what we're here for. If you want to pull each other's hair in the dugout, that's fine. The beautiful thing about Ozzie and Ronald is, if they're 0-for-4 they're still having fun. That's a breath of fresh air for me."

The dynamic makes for the best of all worlds in Atlanta. The Angels have Trout, and the Diamondbacks have Paul Goldschmidt. The Blue Jays have Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and the Nationals have Juan Soto. But it's a rarity for a team to have a perennial All-Star candidate who maintains continuity and a generational talent who arrives at the park each day and does something special. The Braves have precisely that combination in Freeman and Acuna.

The team's first postseason appearance since 2013 was cause for rejoicing among Atlanta sports fans. The Braves, from Anthopoulos to Snitker to the last man on the roster, are convinced this is only the beginning.