Braves, down Ronald Acuña Jr., hope May’s malaise doesn’t lead to June swoon — 'We’re too talented'

ATLANTA — There are two ways to look at an early season rough patch like the Atlanta Braves are enduring now. The first way is to look at the calendar and remember that it’s still early in the season, with four full months remaining in the schedule.

The second is to look at all those playoff flags from seasons past looming over the right-field fence at Truist Park, and remember that for most of their history in Atlanta, the Braves are the living embodiment of a really good ballclub. “Pretty good” keeps the fans engaged. But “pretty good” doesn’t win world championships.

Atlanta is less than three years removed from its most recent World Series victory, and many key members of that team are still on the roster. The team entered 2024 as one of the overwhelming favorites to win another ring. But a season-ending injury to Cy Young favorite Spencer Strider early in the season blew a hole in the rotation, and another season-ending injury to Ronald Acuña Jr. just last weekend sent an already-reeling team into a tailspin.

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Heading into Friday night’s game against the Oakland A’s, the Braves had lost 10 of their past 15. They’ve rolled over in three of the past four series, including two straight to the sub-.500 Pirates and Nationals. They were already 6½ games behind the Phillies in the division they’ve won the past six years in a row.

“It’s just something that seems to be the topic of conversation every day,” sighed manager Brian Snitker before Friday’s series opener with the weariness of a baseball lifer who’s seen these kinds of rough patches many times before. “We’re working to make it better, and it will be. At some point in time, we’re going to get hot.”

ATLANTA, GA - MAY 31: Austin Riley #27 of the Atlanta Braves slides into home scoring a run in the first inning against the Oakland Athletics at Truist Park on May 31, 2024 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Matthew Grimes Jr./Atlanta Braves/Getty Images)ATLANTA, GA - MAY 31: Austin Riley #27 of the Atlanta Braves slides into home scoring a run in the first inning against the Oakland Athletics at Truist Park on May 31, 2024 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Matthew Grimes Jr./Atlanta Braves/Getty Images)

Troll Braves message boards and social media replies, and you’ll find plenty of excuses, justifications, explanations and hot takes.

All those long-term deals the Braves used to lock in young talent have made the team soft.

Third-base coach Ron Washington left Atlanta and took the team’s heart with him.

Chipper Jones isn’t doing any more hitting instruction, and now the team can’t figure out which end of the bat to swing.

Call it a rough patch, call it a swoon, even call it a slump if you’re feeling brave — the problem with a bumpy road in a baseball season is that there’s no real way to combat it head-to-head. You can’t blow a fastball by a slump, you can’t swing a bat hard enough to shatter it. It’s like bad luck; acknowledging that it exists makes it only more powerful, and the only way out is through.

“Baseball is a weird game,” left fielder Jarred Kelenic conceded. “The game’s going to come in waves, and right now we’re kind of in a low point, but we’ll come out of it. We’re too talented.” (Kelenic, for the record, ripped a two-run, second-inning double about four hours after he spoke those words. The Braves won 4-2.)

“Sometimes you do everything right, and things don’t go your way,” reliever Joe Jiménez said. “It’s baseball.”

Even by “It’s baseball” standards, this has been an exceptionally crappy run of bad luck for the Braves. Strider, the latest in a long line of Braves aces, exited the team’s home opener with elbow soreness, and an exam revealed he needed season-ending UCL repair surgery. (He remains with the team, in uniform and sporting a massive right-arm brace to support his healing elbow.) Then, this past Sunday, Acuña tore an ACL, costing him the remainder of the season for the second time in his career. Fans and teammates have shown him nothing but love, and on Friday he finally spoke to the media to express his appreciation.

“All that support finds me crying at home by myself, and the reason that’s happening is because I feel like I’m the one abandoning the team,” Acuña Jr. said via interpreter Franco Garcia. “It feels like I’m the one letting everyone down.”

“You feel bad for him, because this is the second time he’s gone through it,” Kelenic said. “He’s one of the best players in the game right now. The impact that he has not only on our team, but the game of baseball, that’s the hardest part to digest.”

Even before his injury, Acuña was one of many Braves struggling at the plate, and the team now faces a roster-wide power outage. This is what happens when a team built on bashing the ball to the moon all of a sudden can barely get it out of the infield. Heading into Friday night, the Braves ranked 16th in the majors with 57 homers, one below the league average, just one year after tying the all-time team record for home runs in a season. They’re faring slightly better in other offensive statistical categories, ranking seventh in OBP and eighth in slugging.

“It’s rough when you’re a team that’s built on slugging and power like we are, and you don’t have that [working],” Snitker said. “But, you know what, we’ve done really well over the last five, six, seven years, you know, built like that. So we just have to weather this storm like we have in the past.”

The problem — or challenge — for Snitker is that you can’t just scream a major-league clubhouse into line. Pro ballplayers generally don’t respond well to those kinds of theatrics. “You turn over the spread, you bust the TV up or anything, and they look at you like you’ve got two heads,” Snitker said. “These seasons are never easy. I’ve never been fortunate enough to go through one for six months that just everything went right.”

“You have to trust the guys in this [locker] room, and it’s going to turn,” third baseman Zack Short said. “It’s not like everybody’s going up [to the plate] thinking, ‘Oh, it’s fine, it’s OK.’ Everybody wants to play better.”

There’s some statistical merit to keeping calm and keeping on. Through 54 games this year, the Braves were 31-23. Last year at this same point, Atlanta was … 32-22, exactly one game better. The key difference has been the Phillies’ hot start; this time last year, Philadelphia was 6½ games behind Atlanta, not ahead. Philadelphia, 39-18 heading into Friday, has leaped out to the hottest start in franchise history, and the winningest run to start a season since the 2001 Seattle Mariners — not great news for Atlanta, given that weaker Phillies teams than this have knocked the Braves out of the postseason the last two years. The Phillies won on Friday.

Speaking of the postseason, there’s still hope for the Braves. At the 54-game mark in the world championship season of 2021, Atlanta was below .500, at 26-28 and four games out of first. They didn’t take the division lead until Aug. 15 … and Acuña missed most of that season, too.

“It’s not like anybody’s pouting,” Short said. “Everybody’s excited to get to the first pitch, to right the ship and get back to what this lineup is comfortable enough doing.”

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