ATLANTA — Rookie star Ronald Acuna Jr. was back in the lineup for the Atlanta Braves on Thursday, one day after being plunked in the left arm with a pitch that sparked a national debate about whether it’s ever acceptable to throw at a hitter intentionally.
Acuna said his elbow felt fine — less than 24 hours after he took a 97 mph fastball from Miami’s Jose Urena — and proclaimed himself ready to go in the opener of an important four-game series against the Colorado Rockies.
Acuna was batting leadoff and playing left field. Urena received a six-game suspension from Major League Baseball.
“Obviously, it was kind of a hard hit,” Acuna said through a translator after taking an early session of batting practice at SunTrust Park . “But I’m not feeling any pain and I feel good right now.”
As Acuna walked to the plate for his first at-bat against the Rockies — wearing a red protective pad on his left arm — the crowd at SunTrust Park gave the youngster a standing ovation. He playfully patted home-plate umpire Pat Hoberg, took a ball on the first pitch, and then lined a single up the middle.
Acuna stole second to give the Braves a shot at an early lead, but Nick Markakis grounded into an inning-ending double play.
The Braves breathed a big sigh of relief, knowing what a significant injury would have meant to the postseason chances. Atlanta held a two-game lead in the NL East, while the Rockies also are in playoff contention.
Acuna tried to stay in the game after being hit by Urena’s first pitch on Wednesday, but he had to leave in the second inning. X-rays taken shortly afterward were negative, and the Braves also ordered a CT scan to make sure their 20-year-old phenom was OK. The scan came back normal, and Acuna was cleared to play.
With help from multilingual teammate Ender Inciarte, Acuna even crafted a text to Brian Snitker letting the Braves manager know he was ready to go.
Snitker, who was ejected the previous night along with Urena for leading a charge from the Atlanta dugout, was clearly relieved.
“It’s nice to be 20 and strong,” the manager said with a smile, sitting in the Braves dugout before the game. “I’m as excited as I can be that he gets to go out there and play today.”
One of baseball’s top prospects, Acuna has lived up to the hype since being called up by the Braves early in the season. In recent days, he’s been downright unstoppable with homers in five straight games — including leadoff shots in three straight games before he was struck by Urena’s pitch.
The five-game homer streak remained intact under baseball rules because Acuna didn’t have an official at-bat in the finale of the series against the Marlins, which was won by the Braves to complete a four-game sweep . In a quirk of baseball scoring, the leadoff streak ended.
Acuna was trying to become the first Braves player in the modern era to homer in six straight games. The major league record is eight in a row, shared by Ken Griffey Jr. (1993), Don Mattingly (1987) and Dale Long (1956).
While Urena insisted he was merely trying to pitch inside to set up Acuna for an outside pitch , Snitker was livid about the incident. The manager said he had no doubt about the Miami right-hander’s intent:
It was intentional.
“Absolutely,” Snitker said. “Just watching it, I can tell.”
It’s long been an unwritten rule in baseball that a hot hitter can expect to be brushed back. Former first baseman Keith Hernandez, now a New York Mets broadcaster, took it a step further by saying the Marlins had every right to bean Acuna under the circumstances .
“You’ve lost three games. He’s hit three homers. You’ve got to hit him,” Hernandez said during the Mets-Orioles game. “I’m sorry. People are not going to like that, but you’ve got to hit him. Knock him down (at least). I mean, seriously knock him down if you don’t hit him.”
Snitker scoffed at Hernandez’s logic.
“I don’t buy that at all,” the Braves manager said. “I would not ever begrudge somebody for doing the job they’re trying to do. You don’t want him to hit hitters? Pitch better.”
Joe Torre, MLB’s chief disciplinary officer, imposed a suspension that would begin Friday unless Urena appeals. The pitcher would have to push back a scheduled start but could make his return against the Braves; the NL East rivals meet in another four-game series at Miami beginning next Thursday.
Torre also handed Braves first base coach Eric Young a one-game suspension for his actions during the melee after both dugouts emptied. Young accepted the punishment and was sitting out Thursday’s contest the Rockies.
Colorado manager Bud Black said there will always be a fine line between pitching inside and hitting a batter intentionally.
“Hitting home runs is part of the game, right? Hitters are trying to hit the ball hard. Pitchers are trying to do everything they can to keep hitters from hitting,” said Black, a former pitcher. “A lot of that is disrupting timing, a lot of that is throwing the ball down and away — tough to hit a homer down there — and some of that is pitching inside aggressively to keep guys from looking out over the plate.”
Acuna has really flourished since moving into the leadoff spot right after the All-Star break. He raised his average to .288 with 19 homers, 43 RBIs and eight stolen bases, igniting the Braves with his enthusiasm and seemingly boundless energy while making sure never to show up an opponent.
“I feel he’s respecting the game,” Inciarte said. “You don’t want to see anybody getting hit for no reason.”