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Ronald Acuña Jr. keys Braves in return to Miami, where it all went wrong last July

MIAMI – Ronald Acuña Jr. had this series circled in his mental calendar. Braves at Miami, the first time Acuña would be back in the stadium formerly known as Marlins Park since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee trying to make a running, leaping catch here on July 10, 2021.

“I’ve been thinking about that for two or three weeks – when we go to Miami, I want to play in right field,” Acuña said a little more than an hour before Friday’s series opener, in an interview conducted in Spanish with reporters mostly from his native Venezuela. “But there are things you can’t control. You don’t make decisions. They do.”

“They” being Braves officials and medical staff, and their decision was to use Acuña as designated hitter Friday. Manager Brian Snitker said it had nothing to do with it being the scene of his season-ending injury 10 ½ months ago and everything to do with the stadium’s synthetic turf.

“He’s probably going to DH all the games here,” Snitker said before the first of a three-game series at LoneDepot Park, the new name for the retractable-roof stadium in Miami’s Little Havana. “We’re going to keep him off this turf, which I think is smart. We’ll see.

“We’re going to play tonight’s game, then we’ll evaluate him, see how he feels tomorrow coming in, and then make the determination then. But it’s going to be a day-to-day thing with him. Obviously nobody wants him in there more than I do, that’s for sure. Because he makes a big difference when he’s in that lineup.”

Acuña was a difference-maker again Friday in a 5-3 win. He led off the first inning with a double and scored one out later on an Ozzie Albies single, sparking a three-run inning highlighted by Marcell Ozuna’s fourth homer in a seven-game hitting streak and third in as many games.

Dansby Swanson and Travis d’Arnaud also homered for the Braves, who built a 5-1 lead by the third inning against left-hander Trevor Rogers. The Braves had four extra-base hits and four runs before Rogers recorded a fourth out, while Atlanta’s Charlie Morton had his third consecutive solid start after four alarming ones.

Acuña walked and stole a base in the second inning — he has seven stolen bases in just 14 games since being activated from the injured list — and had a single in his third plate appearance in the fourth inning. For a guy confined to DH duties Friday, he certainly had a profound effect on the game.

“He’s starting to come to the milestone months and all that kind of stuff (since) the injury,” said Snitker, who said when Acuña was activated April 28 that the plan was to not play him every day until the one-year anniversary of his surgery (July 21). “He’s approaching a lot of those. And, shoot, he looks great to me. Physically, the strength and the whole thing.”

Snitker added, “If this was a natural surface, he’d be playing the outfield. But because of the turf and all, we just wanted to keep him off that.”

The Braves did that the other time they played on synthetic turf since Acuña was activated, an April 29-May 1 series at Texas, with its retractable dome and fake grass. Acuña played the second and third games of that series, serving as DH in both.

Snitker reiterated when asked again that having Acuña DH at Miami had nothing to do with it being the place he got hurt two games before last year’s All-Star break, a devastating injury that halted what had been an MVP-caliber season to that point for the young superstar.

“Like I say, if this had been natural grass he’d be playing the outfield (Friday),” Snitker said. “We kept him off that stuff in Texas, too. It’s just probably smart, until he gets to a certain point. He’s not going to DH every time we come in here. At some point in time he’ll be past that year mark or whatever they’re looking for, and he’s going to want to get out there.”

Actually, Acuña already wanted to be out there.

When asked by a reporter from Venezuela whether he was looking for “revenge” after having his season ended in right field at this ballpark last summer, Acuña smiled and replied in Spanish, “You could say something like that. I just need to play right field here and get that confidence back.”

Lest anyone jump to conclusions, Acuña quickly clarified when asked if he was at all insecure about returning to play right field at this particular ballpark.

“Insecurity never goes through my mind,” he said. “I’m a competitive player. I got hurt there and I have to return there.”

Acuña told reporters Friday something he had also said to Atlanta reporters at the beginning of spring training: That his rehab was grueling, and that initially he had some doubts about whether he’d make it back to full strength or even play again.

“It crossed my mind that I wouldn’t get back to the big leagues and it also crossed my mind that I wouldn’t walk or run the same,” he said Friday, in Spanish. “But as time passed, as I started seeing results around four months in, and I thought I might see them sooner, that’s when I thought, ‘Yes I can become a better player in the future.’”

He added, “My biggest motivation was my family and friends in Venezuela. I know that a lot of people in La Sabana (his hometown) depend on me and I needed to keep fighting for them.”

Ozuna: “Season’s about to start”

 One week ago, Ozuna, the 2020 NL home run and RBI leader, was hitting a paltry .203 with a .582 OPS, four home runs and 12 RBIs in 33 games.

Now, the player most likely to be voted off Braves island suddenly resembles the slugger who spearheaded Atlanta’s offense for long stretches in 2020. After making an adjustment to his unorthodox stance last week, Ozuna has home runs in three consecutive games and four homers and seven RBIs in his past six.

He’s still hitting just .224 with a .268 OBP, but in six games he’s doubled his home run total and added 100 points to his OPS, boosting it to .682.

“Yeah, I think I’m back,” Ozuna said Friday afternoon, then proved it a couple hours later with a first-inning two-run, two-out homer for a 3-0 lead. “I feel better. Been working every day on what I need, and putting the process to work every time at the plate.”

Asked about the adjustment he made, Ozuna said, “I lost my timing. I got back to the way I feel good swinging, made an adjustment, and I’m doing the little things I need to do to get ready.”

Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer explained the specifics of the adjustment Ozuna made in a swing that has more moving parts and foot movement than typically seen from such a proven major league hitter.

“The adjustment we made with him was to slow his feet down,” Seitzer said. “Because he does a step-back, and then he roars (forward) and he goes fast, and that’s when things can break down. So I talked to him just about slow feet, let the hands whip. Because he always wants to feel the whip, whip, whip. He’s always talking about whip. But when you’re going and you’re jumping off your back side, you can’t do it.

“So that’s helped. He said he felt better the first day we talked about it. Which, I think, was the second game in Milwaukee.”

The second game of the series at Milwaukee was the one that began Ozuna’s current streak of home runs in three games. He has five hits and five RBIs in those three, and nearly had a three-hit game Friday but lined out to the shortstop in the seventh inning.

“It’s good to see,” Snitker said. “We know what a guy like Marcell can do. When he gets hot, he can carry you. He can put a team on his back. So that’s kind of what we’re hoping for, because I know he felt good coming out of Milwaukee.”

The Braves have been waiting on Ozuna, Adam Duvall, Albies and others to start hitting like they have in the past, but Ozuna and Duvall in particular were expected to drive in a lot more runs than they have. Ozuna knows people were disappointed by his performance before this week, but said he didn’t doubt himself.

“I just know I have experience, so I have to use my experience and put in work,” he said.

When it was mentioned to him folks have been waiting for him and Duvall, the respective NL RBI leaders in each of the past two seasons, to start driving in runs, Ozuna said, “We’re coming. We’re coming, no rush.”

Does that mean there’s plenty of time?

“Yeah, season’s about to start,” he said, smiling. “We’re not finished yet.”

Told what Ozuna said about the season getting underway, Seitzer said, “Oh, my gosh. That’s what I hope.”

Ozuna and Duvall have just 34 combined RBIs with nearly a quarter of the season completed, but Seitzer believes both are in better places after working on adjustments.

“I think it’s gonna change, big time,” Seitzer said of the Braves’ inconsistent offense, and particularly those two run-producers. “They’ve got baseball cards, that’s the way I look at it. They’ve got a history, to where it’s gonna come. And when it starts, we’re gonna have some fun.

“Duvey made an adjustment in his setup that’s helped a lot. He had better swings, better timing, just better at-bats in Milwaukee, too,” Seitzer continued. “So I’m hoping both of them will get going. We need everybody to get going. Because it’s just been so cold for so long, and hitting’s contagious too. When it’s been bad, it’s been contagiously bad. But we all know how fun it is when we get hot.”

Charlie and the ‘pen

Morton had a three-hitter and a 5-1 lead before giving up four hits and two runs in the sixth, including a two-run homer to former Braves teammate Jorge Soler, the World Series MVP.

Morton was charged with seven hits, three runs and one walk with five strikeouts in 5 1/3 innings, and he’s 2-0 with a 2.30 ERA in his past three starts after going 0-4 with a 7.85 ERA in the previous four.

Collin McHugh retired the last two batters of the sixth with two runners on base, on a line-out and a fly to the track, and Spencer Strider, A.J. Minter and Will Smith pitched a scoreless inning apiece, with Strider working out of a jam after the hard-throwing rookie gave up a pair of two-out hits in the seventh.

Smith earned his second save of the season on a night when Snitker wanted to rest closer Kenley Jansen at the outset of a 17-games-in-17 days stretch.

(Photo :Eric Espada / Getty Images)

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