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Against All Odds: Ronald Acuña and the Braves chase history

The Braves quest at repeating as world champions received a significant boost on Thursday with the return of Ronald Acuña Jr.

Six months ago, the Atlanta Braves stood on the field in Houston an out away from the franchise’s first World Series title in 27 years. For players like Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, and Dansby Swanson, it was the culmination of a long pursuit. Others, like Eddie Rosario and series MVP Jorge Soler, were brought in during the season and melded together with their new teammates to create a championship-caliber lineup.

But, as Freeman squeezed the last out in Game 6 and the celebrations began, there was someone missing. A few months earlier, Braves star outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. attempted to catch a fly ball against the wall in Miami but instead came down awkwardly on his right leg. He crumbled to the ground, hiding the disappointment on his face with his hands. The diagnosis was devastating: Acuña had torn his ACL; his season was over.

Acuña, already at age 23 baseball’s premier multi-tool player, was forced to watch his teammates make their World Series run from the dugout, unable to take part. His 292-day journey to return to the Braves lineup ended at 1 a.m. on Thursday as he was playing a game of Call of Duty. He received a long-awaited call from Braves General Manager Alex Anthopoulos confirming that, after six games for Triple-A Gwinnett, Acuña would be in the lineup later that day against the Cubs.

Acuña received a standing ovation from the 41,000 fans at Truist Park when he came up for his first at-bat since his injury last July. He finished the game 1-5 and stole two bases in a 5-1 Braves win. He proved the injury hadn’t taken away his dynamic speed and he was just as dangerous as ever. And, now that he’s back, the Braves are poised to make history.

Braves odds to repeat as champions with Ronald Acuña

The Braves got their rings last season. Now comes the hard part: proving it wasn’t a fluke. No team has repeated as World Series champs in more than 20 years, since the Yankees won three straight from 1998-2000.

With Acuña’s return to the lineup, WynnBet gives the Braves +1200 odds to end that drought, tied for the fifth-lowest in the league. Acuña is behind only Juan Soto with +800 odds to add another MVP trophy to that won by Freeman in 2020.

What to expect from the Braves and Ronald Acuña

As one MVP left town this offseason in Freeman, the Braves are getting back a player capable of winning the award himself. At the time of his injury, Acuña led the league in runs scored, was fifth in home runs, and was one of only five players with more than 20 homers and 10 stolen bases. His .990 OPS would’ve been third in the National League behind only eventual MVP Bryce Harper and Soto.

Acuña finished his 2021 season with 24 home runs and 52 RBI in 82 games. Over a 162-game season, he was on pace for 47 home runs, 103 RBI, and 34 stolen bases. No one in MLB history has ever had a season like that. He would’ve joined Barry Bonds and Jeff Bagwell as the only players to reach 40 homers and 30 stolen bases in a season twice.

All of that was taken away on that afternoon in Miami. His rare combination of power and speed would be a significant loss for any team, but the Braves were good enough to win without him. They shouldn’t count on doing so again, and they recognized on Thursday just how much better they are with Acuña at the top of their lineup.

“When I was doing my preparation and stuff, you could just feel a different energy,” starting pitcher Kyle Wright told Mark Bowman of MLB.com. “He’s a superstar player. Just getting a guy like that back in the lineup and locker room goes a long way.”

Wright himself is another reason why the Braves have a chance at repeating as World Series champs. The former top-five draft pick was better known before this season as the starting pitcher when the Braves allowed the Dodgers to score a postseason-record 11 runs in the first inning during the 2020 NLCS. He appeared in just two games in 2021, his ERA nearing 10. So far this year, though, Wright has been virtually untouchable.

Against the Cubs on Thursday, Wright gave up only three hits and one run over seven innings to improve to 3-0. He’s given up just three earned runs over 24 innings in his four starts. His emergence gives the Braves an ideal option to turn to behind their staff aces, Max Fried and Ian Anderson.

Replacing Freeman at first base was never going to be easy, but Anthopoulos, with his trademark boldness, swung a deal in the offseason with the Oakland Athletics for Matt Olson. In 20 games in a Braves uniform, Olson’s .948 OPS is 80 points above Freeman’s, now with the Dodgers.

The Braves climbed to the top of the baseball mountain in 2021, even without Acuna being able to play any role. With him, along with new additions such as Olson and closer Kenley Jansen, they can do it again.

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