ATLANTA (AP) — The last time the Braves made a run to the World Series championship, Ronald Acuña Jr. could only watch.
Now, after a historic season that defied all conventional norms of the national pastime, Atlanta's slugging speedster — or should we say speedy slugger? — has a chance to really shine in the playoffs.
October, after all, is where reputations are made for the ages.
Acuña has already established himself as baseball's most thrilling performer, a guy who stormed right on through the 40-40 club — a group occupied by only five players in the history of the game — to set up his own exclusive cliques.
The 40-50 club. Come and gone.
The 40-60 club. Ditto.
Finally, he settled on the 40-70 club.
“It's one of those numbers that wasn't impossible but seemed impossible,” Acuña said, summing up perfectly the enormity of his accomplishments.
Indeed, he is the first player in baseball history with 40 homers and 70 stolen bases in a single season, which goes against everything we've been led to believe about playing the game.
Sure, there are plenty of muscle-bound boppers capable of knocking the ball over the fence. And, yes, there's always been a place for lithe little guys who can swipe many a base.
But one player? Doing it all?
We can't wait to see what Acuña does in the postseason, which for the MLB-leading Braves begins with the NL Division Series on Oct. 7.
Rest assured, no one is looking forward to this moment more than him.
In 2021, Acuña's season ended in July when he tore up his right knee attempting to make a catch in Miami. The Braves rebuilt their outfield through several shrewd moves ahead of the trade deadline, giving them enough punch to win their first World Series title in more than a quarter-century.
For Acuña, it was a bittersweet moment. He was thrilled for his teammates, but longed for a chance to celebrate on the field.
Now, he's got it.
The Braves have stormed through the season with a fearsome lineup headed by Acuña at the top of the order. They moved into the final weekend of the regular season with 103 wins, having already locked up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Their starting pitching is a bit suspect, but they're certainly one of the favorites to win it all.
“I can't wait for when we get that thing going, to see what he can do," Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "The great ones, they have a penchant to love that spotlight. And he’s one of the great ones.”
Acuña provided a glimpse of that fondness for the big moments during his very first postseason appearance back in 2018.
As a 20-year-old rookie for a team that surprisingly made the playoffs, he became the youngest player ever to hit a postseason grand slam off the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL Division Series.
Acuña struggled in the 2020 NL Championship Series, hitting just .167 as the Braves squandered a 3-1 lead to the Dodgers, and he wasn't on the field at all for Atlanta's World Series triumph a year later.
The injury, in fact, slowed Acuña for another entire year. Struggling to regain confidence in his rebuilt knee, he had just 15 homers and 29 stolen bases in 2022 — numbers that look downright puny compared to this season. He wasn't much of a factor as the Braves were knocked off by the Phillies in the NLDS.
He's likely to have a much bigger impact in this postseason.
“He’s going to be a big, huge part of it," Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies predicted. "He is the guy that sets the tone as the leadoff guy. So it’s gonna be fun to see what he can do this year.”
Acuña should be the overwhelming choice for MVP, even with Mookie Betts of the Dodgers putting up stellar offensive numbers that are further enhanced by him batting leadoff and getting extensive playing time at second base.
Quite simply, Acuña's season is so special, so unique, it would be a crime to deny him baseball's top individual award.
How improbable is a 40-40 season? Well, more than twice as many players have turned an unassisted triple play. Even more have thrown a perfect game. And, of course, Acuña blew away even that most select of groups with his MLB-leading 70 stolen bases.
None of the other 40-40 players — Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez or Alfonso Soriano — had more than 46 stolen bases. Taking it a step further, in the much larger 30-30 club, only two other players (Bonds and Eric Davis) have managed as many as 50 stolen bases.
Acuña went into the final weekend with 146 runs, which was the most in the big leagues in more than two decades and 18 ahead of the next-highest player. He was hitting .336, which trailed only Miami's Luis Arraez (whose lofty .353 average was accompanied by 10 homers and three stolen bases).
It will be interesting to see if Acuña's joyful exuberance when playing the game — sure, he's a show-off, but who cares? — will cost him MVP votes.
It's certainly drawn the wrath of those old-timey, tradition-bound observers who think we're still in the 1950s.
After stealing his historic 70th base in the 10th inning of a tie game Wednesday night, the Chicago Cubs announcers lambasted the swaggering Acuña for briefly halting the game to hold the bag above his head while a montage of season highlights played on the video board.
“Can we get the base after the game? This is pretty absurd. I mean, it’s a hell of an accomplishment, but ...," Jim Deshaies moaned, presumably before he headed home to shoo some kids off his lawn.
Snitker saw it differently.
“I thought it was great when he picked the bag up and showed it," the manager said. "The fans had to love that. We all did. Because it’s a special moment. He might be the only human who can break his own record.”
One of Acuña’s teammates put it even more bluntly.
Pitcher Tyler Matzek, who is out with a season-ending injury, tweeted, “If you don’t like it, stop it. If you can’t stop it, admire it. If you can’t admire it, keep it down so everyone else can enjoy the show.”
We couldn't agree more.
Bring on October.
Paul Newberry is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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