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Ronald Acuna Jr.’s amazing start could mean he’s ready to take his game to another level

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So what has Ronald Acuna Jr. done for the Atlanta Braves so far this season?

Acuna’s numbers through 13 games are preposterous: .442/.492/1.000, seven home runs, 14 extra-base hits, 14 RBIs, 17 runs, 52 total bases, three stolen bases and more than a few bat flips. We entered the season anticipating the trio of young superstars — Acuna, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Juan Soto — challenging Mike Trout and Mookie Betts for the title of “best player in the game.” The early lead: Acuna with a very loud exclamation point.

Here he is beating out a routine grounder to shortstop for an infield single:

Here he is scoring from third base on a sacrifice fly … to the second baseman:

And here he is on Thursday, hitting his seventh home run of the young season:

Acuna had another big hit for the Braves on Thursday. Down 6-5 after the Marlins had scored twice in the top of the ninth, Acuna followed Ender Inciarte‘s leadoff single with a soft line single into left field to help the Braves rally for a 7-6 walk-off victory.

Some fun factoids to Acuna’s start:

• His 14 extra-base hits in the Braves’ first 13 games ties Henry Aaron’s franchise record from 1959.

• The 14 extra-base hits tie Barry Bonds (1988) for most by a leadoff hitter since 1900 through 13 team games.

• The 52 total bases are the most ever by a leadoff hitter through 13 games.

Acuna’s early numbers aren’t just historic for a leadoff hitter. His 1.492 OPS is seventh best through 13 games since 2000. His total-base total is second since 2000 behind the immortal Chris Shelton, who had a remarkable 62 for the Tigers in 2006. It’s a 13-game start similar to Cody Bellinger’s in 2019, a burst that propelled Bellinger to National League MVP honors.

The interesting thing about Acuna, Tatis and Soto is that heading into 2021, all Tatis and Soto really needed to do was maintain their level of play from 2020 to be MVP contenders and best-in-the-sport candidates. Tatis had hit .301/.374/.582 with 39 home runs in his first 143 games in the majors. He had improved his defense and plate discipline in 2020. Soto hit .351/.490/.695 in 2020, leading the NL in average, OBP and slugging percentage. All he has to do is hit like that over 162. Sure, there was room for improvement around the edges, but neither had to be much better than they were last season to be MVP caliber.

Acuna, however, had one serious flaw in his game: strikeouts. He had an obvious area where he could improve. He struck out 188 times in 156 games in 2019 and 60 times in 46 games in 2020. He didn’t necessarily lack plate discipline, since he ranked in the 99th percentile in walk rate, but he hit .250 largely because he ranked in the 14th percentile in strikeout rate.

Thirteen games into 2021 he’s cut way down on the swing-and-miss and that’s why he’s now hitting for power and average. His swing-and-miss rate was 29.9% in 2020, but it’s down to 16.3% so far in 2021. His chase rate on pitches outside the strike zone is down from 19.8% to 14.6%. This is how you go from having elite bat speed and power to becoming one of the best hitters in the game.

The Marlins tried to pitch Acuna inside, going off the numbers from 2020. Acuna had a .987 OPS overall last season, but hit .233 with an .883 OPS on pitches on the inner third of the plate. The home run he hit off Trevor Rogers Thursday actually was a pretty good pitch, a 94 mph first-pitch fastball that was in off the plate. Acuna still managed to whip his bat through the zone and crush the ball to left field. Rogers had broken Acuna’s bat with a similar pitch in the third inning. He didn’t get this one up quite enough and Acuna made him pay.

Likewise, Acuna’s single in the ninth came off a 1-1 sinker off Dylan Floro, another pitch that may have been an inch off the inside edge — not a bad pitch, but not quite at the knees where Floro wanted it. In 2021, Acuna is hitting .421/.450/.737 on inner-third pitches.

The remarkable aspect about Acuna’s hitting has always been his precocious ability to hit offspeed pitches. Check out his career numbers entering 2021:

Curveballs: .336/.397/.649
Sliders: .246/.312/.442
Changeups: .304/.387/.630
Four-seam fastballs: .259/.364/.549
Two-seam fastballs: .306/.411/.532

OK, like most hitters, he’s been a little vulnerable to chasing sliders, but that’s still a pretty good line considering a lot of those sliders came with two strikes. But he actually hit better against curveballs and changeups than fastballs. That’s unique among nearly all hitters, let alone one who debuted at age 20.

You can see why the Marlins tried to jam Acuna inside with fastballs. That has been a location where teams have been able to get him out in the past. If he is indeed improving against fastballs and doing a better job of sniffing them out, then Acuna is headed to another level — an MVP level.

This much is guaranteed: You might remember Chris Shelton, the guy with the hot start we mentioned above. Shelton struggled so much after his start that he was sent down to the minors in August. I’m pretty sure that won’t happen with Acuna.



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New York Yankees’ Gerrit Cole shows he’s an ace for the ages

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Maybe this is one way to put Gerrit Cole in perspective.

In his career, Nolan Ryan, the greatest strikeout pitcher of all time, had eight games in his career where he struck out at least 10 batters and issued no walks. Cole has five such games … in 2021.

Cole’s 1-0 victory Wednesday night in Tampa Bay was a masterpiece for any era: Eight innings, four hits, no runs, no walks, 12 strikeouts, all in a pressure-packed game that was 0-0 until the seventh inning, in a ballpark that hasn’t been kind to the New York Yankees in recent seasons, against a team that has owned the Yankees the past two years, all while a COVID outbreak hit seven members of New York’s coaching and support staff loomed over the team.

“I certainly enjoy playing in meaningful games,” Cole said afterward. “There was a lot going on today and it was certainly a bit challenging to get focused for the game, but once you’re there it’s kind of business as usual, so I try to keep that mind-set all the time and I think it’s helpful when there’s a little bit more on the line.”

Even after beating the Rays on Tuesday, the Yankees were 6-16 against the Rays since 2020, including last year’s loss in the division series. This is the type of game where you need your ace to step up, and Cole did in a big way.

Cole has now struck out 56 batters since his issuing his last walk, tied with a Curt Schilling run in 2002 for the longest stretch since the mound was moved to its current distance in 1893.

“I just want to force the issue. They can always hit it at somebody, I guess,” a decidedly reserved Cole would say, like it’s no big deal to throw 98 and then paint the corners with your off-speed stuff.

Cole’s last walk came on April 12. For the season, he now has 78 strikeouts and three walks. It’s a ratio inconceivable even two decades ago, let alone for a pitcher like Ryan, who had a career strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.04 and career-best streak of 26 strikeouts without a walk.

Yes, somewhere an old-timer will point out Ryan’s complete games and how this was the first time Cole pitched into the eighth inning all season. Fair enough. The games changes. But it was interesting to see Cole’s performance compared to some of the other low-scoring games on Wednesday. Sixteen other starters on a night of low-scoring baseball allowed zero runs or one run, and 12 pitched fewer than six innings.

In today’s baseball, eight innings is a rare achievement.

“He’s so good and so fun to watch,” manager Aaron Boone said. “He’s so versatile out there and able to get you out in so many ways. He was very pitch efficient early on there. Any time he did lose leverage in a count and got behind he made big pitches. I think maybe he made one mistake to [Randy] Arozarena for the double, but he leaned on every pitch in different ways.”

Indeed, that element of pitching is what makes Cole so hard to hit, aside from the velocity and the command. He threw 48 four-seam fastballs, 24 sliders, 19 changeups and 15 curveballs. You can’t sit on the fastball — not that you can hit when you do.

The Yankees clinched the series victory, the first in Tampa since May of 2019, but that was hardly on Cole’s mind after the game.

“In a more normal environment, we’d be a little more focused on that stat, but we’re a little preoccupied with a virus running through the clubhouse right now,” he said. “Maybe it kept it simple for us. We just played baseball and tried to stay safe out here.”

Indeed, shortstop Gleyber Torres sat out Wednesday’s game as a precaution after seven members of the staff tested positive for COVID-19. All seven had been vaccinated. Each member of the Yankees’ traveling party has also been tested at least three times since Tuesday, leading to that chaotic pregame atmosphere Cole referenced.

The Yankees are 11-3 since dropping to an end-of-the-world 9-13 on April 26. Cole is leading the way. “He’s an ace. He’s an absolute bulldog,” Boone said.

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Los Angeles Dodgers’ Edwin Rios to have season-ending shoulder surgery

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LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles Dodgers backup third baseman Edwin Rios will miss the rest of the season after surgery on his right shoulder.

Right-hander Dustin May also underwent Tommy John surgery on Wednesday, sidelining him until at least the summer of 2022.

The defending World Series champions announced their decision later Wednesday on Rios, who has a partially torn labrum. He will have surgery next week.

The Dodgers also shut down Josiah Gray, their top pitching prospect, due to a right shoulder impingement. Gray, who was scratched from his minor league start at the last minute Tuesday night, will rest for at least a week before re-evaluation.

Rios got off to a rough start this season with the Dodgers, batting .078 with one homer in 25 games while clearly struggling with his swing.

The 27-year-old Puerto Rican prospect made his major league debut in 2019. Rios appeared in seven postseason games last fall, hitting two homers in the NLCS against Atlanta.

He had hoped to land a steady backup role playing third base and first base this year for Los Angeles. Instead, the Dodgers will have to use even more of their depth after the latest setback in their significant early-season injury woes.

Along with losing May from the starting rotation, the Dodgers are still without 2019 NL MVP Cody Bellinger, who incurred a hairline fracture in his leg in their first series of the season. There is no timetable for his return to action.

Starting pitchers Tony Gonsolin and David Price are still returning deliberately from injuries to bolster what was probably the deepest rotation in baseball before the season. The staff is already short-handed now, with a bullpen game or a spot start likely necessary Monday against Arizona.

Promising rookie utilityman Zach McKinstry is also still out with strained right oblique, while key right-handed reliever Corey Knebel likely is out for months with a strained back muscle. The bullpen also is missing Brusdar Graterol (forearm) and Scott Alexander (shoulder) with shorter-term injuries.

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Arizona Diamondbacks add Zac Gallen, Christian Walker to a crowded injured list

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PHOENIX — The Arizona Diamondbacks continued to deal with a surge of early-season injuries, putting starting pitcher Zac Gallen and first baseman Christian Walker on the 10-day injured list Wednesday.

Gallen has a sprained right ulnar collateral ligament, which is the ligament replaced in Tommy John surgery. Walker has a sore right oblique; a similar injury put him on the IL earlier this season.

Gallen has emerged as one of baseball’s top young pitchers. He finished ninth in the NL Cy Young Award voting last season and had a 3.04 ERA through five starts this year.

Manager Torey Lovullo was confident the D-backs’ medical team caught Gallen’s injury early, saying the elbow sprain was “minor” and that he was hopeful the 25-year-old would be able to avoid having the Tommy John procedure.

“We have multiple opinions that are coming in and as of right now, it looks like we’re going to reassess in a couple weeks,” Lovullo said.

Gallen missed his first start of the season with a hairline fracture in his right forearm that happened when he was taking batting practice during spring training. Lovullo said the two injuries aren’t related.

Matt Peacock was to make his first career start in Gallen’s place on Wednesday against Miami. The Marlins, a bit squeezed in their rotation as well, planned to start Cody Poteet.

Walker has already missed three weeks this season because of oblique soreness. The 30-year-old returned on May 4 and played in seven games before getting hurt again on Monday. Lovullo said Walker’s injury is in the same general area.

“These are challenging times,” Lovullo said. “It’s stuff we talk about, stuff we budget for and what I’ll say is every team walks through very challenging situations. It’s how we respond to those situations that’s going to separate us.”

Gallen and Walker join a host of other D-backs who have made trips to the injured list this season. Outfielders Ketel Marte, Kole Calhoun and Tim Locastro, shortstop Nick Ahmed and pitchers Joakim Soria, Tyler Clippard and Taylor Widener have all missed time with injuries.

The Diamondbacks called up pitcher Seth Frankoff and utility player Andy Young to take the place of Gallen and Walker on the active roster.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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