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World Series: Atlanta’s Ronald Acuna Jr. can imagine himself there

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World Series: Atlanta’s Ronald Acuna Jr. can imagine himself there

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HOUSTON – As Atlanta Braves outfielder Jorge Soler stepped into the batting box on Tuesday for the 2021 World Series first at bat, one of his teammates sitting in the dugout claimed he was there -up instead. It’s not that outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. wants to take Soler’s job; it is because he fails to make his own.

“In all the moments, even in the key moments, I imagine myself taking that stick,” Acuña said in Spanish Wednesday before Game 2 against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park.

By reaching the World Series for the first time since 1999, Atlanta overcame a major hurdle: the absence of its best player.

Acuña, 23, is a dazzling performer on the pitch, one of the best in all of sport. He can run fast, hit hard, and throw with precision. He won the 2018 National League Rookie of the Year award. The two-time All-Star was playing as a Most Valuable Player Award contender – 0.283 average, .990 percentage based on plus strokes, 24 home runs , 17 bases stolen – before his season ended abruptly in July. ten.

While chasing a ball against the Marlins in Miami, Acuña made a jump attempt and landed on his right leg. His knee flexed and he fell into the wall of the outfield. The damage was extensive: a tear in the anterior cruciate ligament, which required surgery and is normally followed by eight to 12 months of recovery.

It was perhaps the most pivotal day in a hectic season for Atlanta. Due to Acuña’s injury, general manager Alex Anthopoulos has embarked on a wave of rallies to strengthen the outfield. Eddie Rosario, Joc Pederson, Jorge Soler and Adam Duvall have all been brought in.

The four new outfielders have been asked to replace Acuña as well as Marcell Ozuna, a former All-Star who is on administrative leave while under investigation by Major League Baseball for domestic violence. Collectively, they hit 0.289 with nine home runs and 28 RBIs on Friday. Rosario was the National League Championship Series MVP and Soler scored the first hit in the World Series.

“Spectacular – they are doing an amazing job,” said Acuña, who signed an eight-year, $ 100 million contract until 2026. “They helped the team and that’s what we needed the most. . “

Freddie Freeman, a star first baseman, added, “It’s pretty amazing that we tried to cover with four guys to get Ronald’s performance back. I think we were able to accomplish this, even though we want Ronald to be here.

Watching them succeed, however, has a bittersweet undertone for Acuña. After helping the team win their fourth straight title in the NL East Division, he wants nothing more right now than to play alongside his teammates. He had originally planned to settle for the next best option: joining them in the clubhouse and dugout for the home games at Truist Park.

But when Atlanta’s 88 wins reached the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 106 wins, Acuña asked the team’s athletic coaches if he could travel to the World Series if they advance. They had to sign, he said, as they are very careful with him and want him to avoid any potentially dangerous movement.

“It’s a dream to go to the World Series,” he said, adding later: “I always enjoy being with my teammates. I live more with them than with my real family. They’re my family too, so I told them I wanted to be with the team as far as we go.

For Atlanta manager Brian Snitker, it was a no-brainer to bring Acuña to the World Series, along with other crucial players who were injured, including starter Mike Soroka (Achilles tendon torn) and wide receiver Stephen. Vogt (sports hernia surgery).

“I’m really glad these guys can be here to experience this with their teammates,” said Snitker. “Ronald played an important role in this file until he was injured. I want them to experience it because they are part of this club.

While he would have much preferred Acuña to be on the pitch, Snitker said Acuña’s trip to the World Series was always precious. Snitker added: “I want you to remember that feeling when we come to spring training, how hard it is to get here, how hard you have to work and be consistent every day to get in. this position.”

Watching an entire game from the canoe is a new experience for Acuña, who noted that it was the most important injury of his career. Known for his dynamic playstyle and personal flair, Acuña channeled that into the dugout cheerleaders – all while donning his playing uniform. He constantly talks and puffs up his teammates.

When wide receiver Travis d’Arnaud smashed a solo homerun in a 7-2 loss in Game 2 that tied the top seven streak at one game apiece, Acuña waved his arms and hit the railing of the shelter with joy. One of Acuña’s closest friends on the team, star second baseman Ozzie Albies, recently said Acuña has offered words of encouragement throughout the playoffs, including callbacks from how much he wanted them to win a title this year. It would be the franchise’s first since 1995.

“It’s weird,” Acuña said of not playing. “I feel totally overwhelmed because I’m a part of this team and I would love to be there playing and giving my best and 100%. But God’s time is perfect, and it’s my turn to be on the bench to support my teammates.

It is also, of course, his turn to get back in shape. During the first month and a half after the operation, Acuña said he wondered if he would walk or run again because his leg was so weak. But now he has happily reported that he is showing progress.

He no longer needs crutches, and he doesn’t limp either. He spends about three and a half hours a day in rehabilitation, he said, and he uses weights to gradually strengthen his leg. And soon, he said, he’ll start swinging a bat and loosening his throwing arm. The rough estimate of his return is at the start of next season, in May.

“If it was up to me, I would be back sooner,” Acuña said. “But I’m in no rush. I have to do everything calmly because it is my knee and it is the support of the whole body. When I feel good, I will come back.

As Acuña walked through the tunnel connecting the Minute Maid Park visitors’ dugout canoe to the clubhouse on Wednesday, he was enveloped in an embrace. It was Ralph Garr, 75, the former Atlanta star outfielder who serves as a special mission scout for the team.

“I love you to death,” he told Acuña. “How are you? You played them well.

Acuña burst out laughing. Earlier he admitted he was already imagining the team returning to the World Series next year – “but with me playing this time.”

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