If you were a pitcher in tonight’s Braves-Marlins contest, you probably didn’t have too much fun. If you were a hitter, you probably did. If you were Ronald Acuña Jr., well, we’re all bowing down to you right now.
Acuña opened the home half of the first by smashing Trevor Richards’ first pitch into the left-center seats. It was his third consecutive leadoff homer, and the second consecutive that he drilled out of the park on the first pitch he saw. I’m not sure what the record is for consecutive leadoff homers, but as best I can tell, Acuña now holds it with three. (I’m sure this will be disproven in due time, but this link was all I could find.) Not only that, but Acuña’s first-inning blast gave him homers in five consecutive games, making him the youngest player in history to do so. He’s a phenom, he’s a monster, he’s coming to smash up a pitch near you. He’s as advertised, folks.
To not bury the lede, the main point of the story is that Acuña’s first homer of the night was already historic, but he wasn’t done there. The Braves engaged in a somewhat-frustrating seesaw affair with the Marlins, marked by ineffective pitching on both sides. While the Braves finally took the lead for good on Dansby Swanson’s two-out single in the seventh, it was Acuña that slammed the door with a veritable coup de grace: a three-run homer on a get-me-over first pitch changeup that was served well over the brick wall in right field.
So, it was a lot of fun. But not if you were a pitcher... as mentioned. Onward, to the actual recounting of the game’s events...
Anibal Sanchez got the start for the Braves and completed the first inning with a flourish. After allowing a leadoff single to Rafael Ortega, Sanchez then proceeded to strike out the side. He got J.T. Realmuto swinging on a 71 mph frisbee “changeup,” and then after Ortega stole second, sent Brian Anderson back to the bench on a perfectly-placed cutter on the outer edge that drew an ineffectual swing. Derek Dietrich then got frozen on a 2-2 cutter down the middle to end the inning.
That set up Acuña’s towering drive on Miami starter Trevor Richards’ first pitch. Richards’ next pitch, while not delivered to Acuña, suffered the same fate: Acuña’s homer was on a 90 mph fastball on the inner third; Culberson’s was on a 91 mph fastball on the outer third. Both landed in the left-field seats, though Acuña’s was more towards the foul line and a few rows back. Richards had thrown two pitches, and was down 2-0. The Braves didn’t quite stop there: Freddie Freeman singled up the middle, and then took third as Nick Markakis lifted a 3-2 changeup over the infield for a base knock of his own. But, the middle of the order failed to deliver Freeman from third: Johan Camargo flied out to shallow left, Ender Inciarte hit a liner right at the second baseman, and Kurt Suzuki hit a weak grounder to third to end the inning.
The second was one of the few relatively quiet innings in this expansive, exhausting, fascinating game. Sanchez allowed a leadoff single and then a two-out “single” that came as a result of Dansby Swanson bobbling a ball at short and failing to retire speedster Magneuris Sierra at first. But, with Richards being the next man up, Sanchez had little trouble getting him to swing through a cutter to send the game into the inning’s bottom half, where the Braves went down in order.
Sanchez would not be quite so fortunate in the third: he had trouble finding the zone and issued a leadoff four-pitch walk to Ortega, and then trouble found him as he grooved a splitter that Realmuto deposited into left-center field for a game-tying two-run homer. Despite another walk in the inning, Sanchez threw a great sinker that swerved back across the plate to J.T. Riddle to end the frame. That set up the Braves to go right back to work against Richards: Freddie Freeman drew a one-out walk, moved to second on a wild pitch, and scored as Camargo singled on a grounder to the right side. With the Miami outfield playing deep, and the infield playing him to pull, the ball had no chance of being fielded, and Freeman had no chance of being thrown out. Inciarte then yanked the first pitch of his plate appearance into the right-field corner for his fourth triple of the year, giving the Braves a 4-2 advantage. Kurt Suzuki also put a charge into a 3-1 fastball, but it was caught on a line by Ortega in left field.
Unfortunately, Sanchez then completely unraveled for the Braves in the third. Yadiel Rivera led off the inning with a hard single the other way. After a forceout at second, Sanchez fielded a bunt laid down by Richards, but bobbled and dropped the ball, and then failed to successfully recover by lobbing the ball in the direction of first base but hitting Richards at the base of the neck instead. That defensive miscue was followed up by Ortega rifling the very next pitch past Culberson at second, scoring Miami’s third run. Ortega reached second on the play, which proved critical as Realmuto smashed an 0-2 hanging changeup into left field for a two-run single that put the Marlins ahead. A hot smash to shortstop from Anderson was temporarily booted by Swanson, leading to a single out, but Sanchez was able to get a more routine grounder from Derek Dietrich to end that inning.
The Braves got back-to-back two-out singles from Acuña and Culberson in the bottom of the inning, but Richards beffudled Freeman with back-to-back changeups; Freeman’s strikeout stranded both runners, but he’d have his revenge yet.
Despite the very rough time Sanchez had in the fourth, he came out for the fifth, and calmed the waters with a 1-2-3 inning that required just 10 pitches. The Braves then got to Richards again in the bottom of the inning, as Johan Camargo notched a one-out single by lining a ball over short, and Ender Inciarte drew a four-pitch walk. That set up Kurt Suzuki’s soft liner over third to tie the game, chasing Richards. Javy Guerra then came on for Miami and retired Dansby Swanson, and the inexplicably-pinch-hitting-against-a-righty Adam Duvall to leave the game tied.
It didn’t stay tied for long — Jesse Biddle came on in relief of Sanchez in the sixth, and did not immediately fare well. Much like a miscue on an attempt to cover first resulted in Biddle’s unraveling last Saturday night against the Brewers, Biddle was once again victimized by a grounder to first, as Sierra reached base safely in that manner. Pinch-hitter Christopher Bostick then smashed a liner over third. The speedy Sierra appeared to run through a spot sign at third base and Acuña’s throw from left hit the cutoff man, but Camargo appeared to have trouble getting the ball out of his glove and did not complete the relay. Just like that, the Braves were once again trailing, 6-5. Biddle’s issues weren’t done yet: he allowed a single to Ortega that pushed Bostick to third, and then hit Realmuto with a pitch to load the bases. But, joy of joys for Biddle and the Braves, he struck out Anderson on a very borderline curveball, and then somehow got Dietrich to hit into a double play with the bases loaded on a letter-high fastball (seriously, how do you do that?) to keep the deficit at just one.
The Marlins then summoned Adam Conley to try to hold their slim lead. Spoiler alert: it didn’t work, not even a little bit. Conley, who’s had modest success as a reliever this year after being demoted from the rotation following his struggles there last season, retired both Acuña and Culberson, but got obliterated on a 1-0 fastball to Freeman, who deposited it into the seats in right-center for a game-tying solo blast.
Biddle, like Sanchez before him, bounced back from his poor inning in dramatic fashion — whereas Sanchez breezed through his final inning, Biddle overpowered the Marlins, striking out the side on 15 pitches, using his big curveball to send each of Castro, Riddle, and Rivera down swinging.
That shutdown frame opened the floodgates, as the Braves knocked Conley around some more. Inciarte got the rally going with a one-out double down the left-field line, and after Kurt Suzuki popped out, scored on Dansby Swanson’s grounder up the middle to tie the game. Pinch-hitter Ozzie Albies then reached on a soft roller to third, which set up Acuña’s second dinger of the game (see video evidence above). That was pretty much all she wrote for this game: Acuña trotted around the bases, celebrations were had, hearts were gladdened, and the door was essentially slammed. Jonny Venters and Drew Steckenrider exchanged scoreless frames in the eighth, and A.J. Minter allowed a leadoff single but nothing else to end the game.
Acuña was the big story in this one, with his three-hit, four-RBI, two-homer affair, but every Braves’ starter had a hit, and all but Markakis drove in at least one run. The offense succeeded at bailing out Sanchez in one of his worst starts of the year — it was only the fifth time all year he failed to go more than five innings, the second time all year he allowed five runs, and the third time all year he allowed four earned runs.
With the Phillies losing (thanks, Craig Kimbrel) tonight, the Braves are now suddenly in possession of a two-game lead in the NL East. They go for the four-game sweep tomorrow, as Kevin Gausman will take the mound against Jose Ureña.