Atlanta Braves star Ronald Acuna Jr. has worked hard to reach the stratosphere of Major League Baseball. A day after suffering a season-ending torn ACL in his right knee, Acuna vowed to work harder than ever to remain there.
"The only thing I can say is that I'm obviously going to put maximum effort to come back stronger than ever," Acuna said via Braves interpreter Franco Garcia during a Zoom call on Sunday. "If was giving 500 percent before, I'm about to start giving 1,000 percent."
Acuna suffered the injury during Atlanta's 5-4 victory over the Marlins on Saturday when he landed awkwardly on the warning track while chasing a fly ball struck by Miami's Jazz Chisholm Jr. Acuna grabbed at his knee in agony while Chisholm circled the bases for an inside-the-park home run.
The game was delayed for more than 10 minutes after Acuna initially tried to walk off the field but was unable to do so under his own power. As he was carried away on a cart, cameras caught an emotional Acuna tearing up after what turned out to be a season-ending injury, though he says he did not initially know that was the case.
"I knew something was wrong," Acuna said. "I guess I didn't understand the severity of it, until the doctor told me about it later on. Nothing I can do about it now. I can't control things I can't control."
Late Saturday, the Braves announced via social media that Acuna had indeed suffered a complete tear of his ACL and would undergo surgery. ESPN's Jeff Passan reported that Acuna is expected to miss nine to 10 months, which would put him in jeopardy of missing the start of the 2022 season.
However long it takes, Acuna vows to come back as good as he was when he went down.
"I think I'm a patient person and I think that's going to work in my favor," Acuna said. "Continue to work hard, trust the process of the rehab. Just continue to work hard. You get out what you put in."
Acuna did not discuss a timetable regarding his eventual return, saying that his surgery has not yet been scheduled. For now, he is preparing to go, as planned, to Colorado for the All-Star Game, where he would have started in the outfield for the National League.
"(Being selected) means a lot to me," Acuna said. "In that same sense, those fans who went out and voted for me, they deserve it as much as I did. I wouldn't be here without them."
Before his injury, Acuna was putting up another stellar season that had him positioned for a run at his first MVP award. He leads the Braves in batting average (.283), homers (24) and stolen bases this season (17), and leads all big leaguers with 72 runs scored.
According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Acuna is just the fifth player to compile at least 100 homers and 75 stolen bases at age 23 or younger, joining Mike Trout, Andruw Jones, Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr.
"This guy is arguably the best player in the game right now," Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "It's going to be hard to replace him. Somebody's going to get an opportunity, whether it's somebody in this clubhouse, or away, who knows? That's what you do in our business, you just keep going, keep playing."
Atlanta's win on Saturday evened the Braves' record on the season at 44-44. The three-time defending NL East champions have struggled with injuries and inconsistency all season. Their game at Miami on Sunday represented their seventh chance this season to climb over .500. Atlanta has dropped all six of its previous games in that situation. Though the Braves' season goals without Acuna will become harder to reach, he, at least, believes in his teammates.
"When I got the news (about the ACL), I was really sad," Acuna said. "I love to play and that's what I want to do, to be able to play. I'm really sad and disappointed for the team. I know they need me and I want to be there for them, to help contribute. I have the utmost confidence in my teammates to go out and produce, and I know they'll do great."
The post-Acuna portion of Atlanta's season got off to a rough start on Sunday. The Marlins' Pablo Lopez struck out the first nine Braves hitters, becoming the first starting pitcher since 1884 to strike out the first nine opposing batters in a game.
As for Acuna's remarkable early career trajectory, for inspiration he might look to the career of New York Yankees legend Mickey Mantle, who suffered a devastating knee injury in the 1951 World Series but went on the become one of baseball's best players ever.
During the 2018 playoffs, Acuna, then 20, broke Mantle's record as the youngest player to hit a grand slam in the postseason, connecting off the Los Angeles Dodgers' Walker Buehler in Game 3 of the division series. After the game, Acuna admitted he had never heard of Mantle, saying, "I wasn't even born."
Now he and Mantle are connected in another way, one that no MLB fan wanted to see. Still, Snitker for one believes that there is no reason Acuna won't still end up in the same place as Mantle: Cooperstown.
"It's just another punch to the gut we've got to endure," Snitker said. "But you know what, he's a young, strong guy. He'll recover great and continue a Hall of Fame career when he's done."