Three Braves takeaways: Replacing Ronald Acuña Jr. in the opening match, Marcell Ozuna sizzles and more

ATLANTA – For a team that rarely slumped for more than a few days last season while pounding opponents, 2024 has been a slog for the Atlanta Braves hitters. Only stellar pitching from their top three starters and continued torrid hustling from Marcell Ozuna have kept Atlanta from falling a country mile behind Philadelphia in the National League East.

But despite losing 11 of 18, including two of three in Pittsburgh and three of four at home against the Washington Nationals last week, Braves players and manager Brian Snitker have seen encouraging signs from a few key hitters in recent days in a attack that was especially dying for five frustrating weeks.

It won’t be easy for the Braves to overcome a season-ending knee injury to front-runner Ronald Acuña Jr. to win. Still, they believe recent resurgences from Matt Olson and Michael Harris II, plus the returns of Austin Riley and Sean Murphy from injury absences, positioned the Braves for their first swing since late April.

Here are three insights on the Braves, who got six innings of one-run ball from fourth starter Charlie Morton in a 3-1 win against Oakland on Sunday and closed out a 3-4 homestand against the Nationals and Oakland A’s:

Harris and Albies share the lead

Acuña had been in the leadoff spot since early 2019 when healthy and had a majors-leading .416 OBP and NL-best 1.012 OPS to go with 41 home runs and 73 steals en route to his unanimous NL MVP award in 2023. Now give the Braves the top spot with a platoon of left-handed center fielder Harris and switch-hitting second baseman Ozzie Albies, who has hit .327 against lefties this season after leading the 2023 MLB qualifiers to .391.

Ozzie Albies delivered the big goal against the A’s on Sunday from fifth place in the order. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Harris had three hits, including two doubles on Saturday, as the Braves had nine hits and seven RBIs from the top four in their order. They still lost 11-9, only their fourth defeat in 51 games when they scored eight or more points since the start of last season. Chris Sale, presumptive NL Pitcher of the Month for May, allowed four times as many runs (eight) in four innings on Saturday as he allowed in 32 innings in his five starts in May.

Still, it was the kind of offense the Braves were waiting for. It was their norm last season and even early this season before a nearly lineup-wide slump consumed Atlanta’s offense in late April. They won Sunday with just seven hits, but three came with runners in scoring position, including Albies’ runscoring single in the eighth inning from the fifth spot, where he bats games against right-handed starters.

Statistics say they are too late

Despite their struggles, before Sunday the Braves led MLB in hard-hit percentage (44.5) and average exit velocity (93.4 mph), two metrics in which they also led a year ago when they topped the most major offensive categories, including tying for 307 home runs. baseball’s single-season record.

They are 16th in home runs this season with just one per game (59 in 57 games), including four for Acuña in 49 games before his torn ACL, and three home runs (and 19 RBIs) for Riley in 44 games. Riley averaged 36 home runs and 99 RBIs over the past three seasons.

By several metrics, the Braves have been unlucky, including an NL-leading 53 outs on balls hit at 105 mph or higher before Sunday. Harris was the NL’s individual leader with 14.

“Yes, we’re in a good place,” Harris said. “Like I said, we’re going to turn this around quickly and (Saturday) was a good experiment to show that we’re coming back.”

“I feel like that’s kind of the name of the game for us, for some reason,” said Austin Riley, who doubled and had an RBI single on Saturday before hitting a double and two runs on Sunday. hit a line drive. “But you just have to keep squaring balls, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Ozuna continues to hiss

While all eight of the Braves’ 2023 All-Stars – Olson, Albies, Acuña, Murphy, Riley, Orlando Arcia, Spencer Strider, Bryce Elder – have clashed or been injured in the first two months, Ozuna is putting together a torrid continues the pace he started in May. 2, 2023, which propelled him to a 40 home run, 100 RBI season and now has him leading the NL with 17 home runs and 53 RBIs.

His RBI total was the highest with a Brave through 56 games, as he had the same 17 home runs and 53 RBIs through 56 in a shortened 2020 season when he finished as the NL leader in both. Before Ozuna, Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews was the last Brave to have at least 53 RBIs in 56 games in 1953.

Ozuna has 28.8 percent of the Braves’ 59 home runs and 21.4 percent of their 247 RBIs, the highest percentages of any NL player. During his current 26-game on-base streak, he is hitting .330 with eight home runs and a 1.054 OPS. He has eight more home runs and 20 more RBIs than Atlanta’s second-highest totals (Olson’s nine and 33), but Ozuna thinks it’s only a matter of time before the lineup clicks consistently.

“Everyone knows we’re coming,” he said. “We just have to have the same patience and trust and coordinate everything.”

(Photo by Marcell Ozuna: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)