Ronald Acuna Jr. (May 26, 2024) [1296x729]
Ronald Acuna Jr. (May 26, 2024) [1296x729] (Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Cole solid in season debut eyes higher pitch limit

When Ronald Acuna Jr. blew out his right knee on July 10, 2021, Alex Anthopoulos felt compelled to respond quickly.

The Braves' head of baseball operations wanted to send a message to the Atlanta players that the season was not lost -- that the front office and the team should both continue to fight. So five days later, Anthopoulos traded for veteran outfielder Joc Pederson and catcher Stephen Vogt, and before the end of the summer, he'd add three more outfielders -- Adam Duvall, Eddie Rosario and Jorge Soler. The Braves would go on to win the World Series that fall, with those midseason additions contributing significantly.

Now Acuna has suffered another anterior cruciate ligament injury, to his other knee, and again he is out for the season.

The Braves' situation is not nearly as dire as it was when Acuna was hurt in '21 -- then, Atlanta was struggling to play .500 ball, and didn't have nearly as deep of a roster as it does now. But this time, the team has to move ahead not only without the reigning National League MVP, but also without its most dominant pitcher, Spencer Strider, who suffered a season-ending elbow injury at the outset of the season.

The early success (and good health) of Chris Sale has helped to plug the hole created by Strider's injury. But the Braves' offense -- which had already been in an early funk after setting records for home runs last year -- will need heroes to emerge in the lineup.

It might be third baseman Austin Riley, who is expected to return soon from a minor back injury suffered a couple of weeks ago. At that point, Riley had felt that he was just about to emerge from an early-season slump. "I am this close," said Riley, holding his index and thumb millimeters apart, as he described how he felt at the plate.

Maybe it'll be Braves center fielder Michael Harris II, who knows what it means to dig out of a slump. Last year, Harris was activated off the injured list without taking at-bats in the minors because the staff felt his defense was so important -- and for six weeks, he struggled mightily at the plate. But in his last 100 games, Harris batted .335 with 63 runs, 16 home runs and 15 stolen bases. He could be a natural candidate to ascend into the leadoff spot.

All-Star catcher Sean Murphy, too, was just activated after missing most of the past two months with a rib cage injury. First baseman Matt Olson has already begun to work his way out of a slow start, batting .290 with five homers in his past 16 games. Through his April struggles, Olson had actually generated hard-hit rates that were in line with what he produced last year, but he did not have the results to show for it. His teammates felt he had been the victim of some bad BABIP luck.

Many pointed to a game against the Red Sox on May 8: Olson scorched a line drive toward left field that Boston third baseman Rafael Devers rose to barely spear. Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer could see Olson's shoulders sag with frustration at the sight of yet another intercepted line drive.

But Devers couldn't hold the ball, and Olson got a hit. Before the next game, Seitzer spoke to Olson about his reaction to Devers' brief interception. When Olson's shoulders dropped, Seitzer said, it was like he could see that misfortune weighing down the All-Star first baseman. Seitzer told Olson there was no sense clinging to that frustration, because those early-season at-bats were behind him, and he couldn't change the result.

"As far as I'm concerned, the season starts for you today," Seitzer said. Hours later, after Olson had clubbed a home run in a series-opening win over the Mets, Seitzer greeted Olson in the handshake line and punctuated his earlier remarks: "Have a great season."

Maybe the Braves will get a boost from Ozzie Albies, or Jarred Kelenic, the talented young outfielder who has swung well in his first season with the Braves. Maybe Duvall, signed late in spring training, will take advantage of the additional playing time he will get. Maybe Marcell Ozuna will continue to carry the offense, as he has for a lot of this season.

"He might be the best hitter in baseball right now," Cubs manager Craig Counsell said Sunday as he described a plate appearance that Ozuna had against his team.

And it's a certainty that Anthopoulos, reflexively proactive, will scan the trade market and look for opportunities to upgrade, even at a time when his farm system is thinner than that of other contenders. Anthopoulos typically holds some spending flexibility in reserve, and inevitably, other teams will look to dump pricey veterans as they fall out of the race. Sellers will develop, and outfielders will become available. Tyler O'Neill, Harrison Bader, Mark Canha, Starling Marte, Tommy Pham, Rosario (again) and Kevin Kiermaier are among the players on short-term deals who could be moved this year if their respective teams fall out of contention.

Braves manager Brian Snitker talked earlier this year about the team's offensive problems and mentioned a trait he sees in the collective mindset of the team. "These guys will not panic," he said. "They will never panic. Three years ago, we lost Acuna, and these guys just kept going."

Three years ago, they won the World Series without him.

Now the Braves will have to try to do that again.