LOS ANGELES — Michael Harris II made his major league debut less than three years after graduating from Stockbridge High School outside Atlanta, signed an eight-year, $72 million extension less than three months after his debut, and won NL Rookie of the Year. So, Harris already has seen and done some things.
But the Braves center fielder hadn’t seen anything like the show that’s been put on this season, and especially the past week, by teammate Ronald Acuña Jr. The superstar leadoff man had seven extra-base hits including four homers, five stolen bases and 11 RBIs on the team’s highly successful 8-2 trip that ended Sunday at Los Angeles, where the Dodgers won 3-1 to avoid a four-game sweep.
The Braves won all three series at San Francisco, Colorado and L.A.
“He plays with emotion,” Harris said Sunday morning, discussing what it’s been like playing with Acuña during a spectacular season that’s seen the right fielder ensconced as an NL MVP favorite, and likely the frontrunner again after the four-game head-to-head series with the Dodgers and Mookie Betts. “I’m really enjoying it, just being around him as a teammate.”
Acuña had three homers in the series including a grand slam and a stunning 454-foot line drive Saturday that was the third-hardest hit homer (121.2 mph) in the majors during the Statcast era since 2015.
“I know people were talking about the exit velo on the one he hit (Saturday), talking about all the homers,” Braves pitcher Charlie Morton said, “and it’s like, yeah, that’s why we’re here talking about it, because he’s been doing it all year. It’s not just this series or this road trip, it’s been the whole year.”
Morton, after going 4-1 with a 1.91 ERA in five August starts and working at least six innings in the last three, was replaced after running into trouble in the fifth inning Sunday, when he gave up two runs within the first three batters on a leadoff walk, a Miguel Rojas run-scoring double and Betts’ RBI single.
Left-hander Dylan Lee replaced him, making his first appearance after a 3 1/2-month stint on the injured list for shoulder issues, and immediately induced a double-play grounder from Freddie Freeman. On a day when they lost, the return of Lee was a big plus for the Braves, who counted him as one of their top relievers last year and again early this season before he went on the IL.
It was Morton’s shortest start of the season and he was charged with six hits, two runs and three walks, snapping his four-start winning streak.
But Sunday’s outcome didn’t change how the veteran pitcher and the Braves felt about the team’s trip, especially winning three of four at Dodger Stadium, where the Braves had struggled mightily for years and last won a four-game series in 2009.
“I know we didn’t win today, but it was a good road trip for us,” said Matt Olson, who ended a homerless stretch of 81 plate appearances with a seventh-inning solo home run, the only run against Bobby Miller, a rookie who limited the Braves to three hits and one walk in seven innings.
This was after Atlanta’s majors-leading offense racked up 18 runs and eight homers in the series’ first three games.
“Felt like we were pitching, hitting, playing defense, kind of doing everything” on the trip, Olson said. “Really good last long road trip, especially coming out here, time change, everything being on a different schedule. We’re excited to get back (home) and hopefully keep winning.”
Betts excelled in the first and last games of the series, but wasn’t as sensational as Acuña, who homered in each of the first three games. Along the way, he became the first player with at least 30 homers and 60 stolen bases in a season, and was booed by large Dodger Stadium crowds at every mention of his name and throughout every animated jaunt around the bases.
Ronald Acuña Jr. gets married, then hits historic grand slam to help Braves beat Dodgers
“He loves being the villain in these places,” Harris said, smiling when asked if it’s fun playing with Acuña. “Yeah, it’s really fun.”
Players were still talking a day later about the screaming line-drive homer Acuña hit Saturday.
“One of the more impressive things I’ve seen,” Olson said. “I said the other day, you almost get numb to what he’s doing this year. You have to stop and appreciate everything he’s doing, not just get used to it. It’s been unbelievable. He’s been so consistent, one of the most consistent (accumulation of) at-bats that I’ve seen anybody take throughout the course of a season.”
“Uh, 121 is pretty wild,” Harris said of Acuña’s home run exit velocity, topped by only two homers in eight seasons of the Statcast era. Both of those were hit by Yankees behemoth Giancarlo Stanton, and both were only tenths of 1 mph harder than Acuña’s 19-degree launch-angle drive.
“To hit it 450 feet at 19 degrees — imagine if he would have hit it at a 25- or 30-degree angle, how far it would have went,” Harris said. “That’s the scary part, because he didn’t get under it, he really just hit it on a line and it went 450. Like I said, it’s fun watching him play and being his teammate.”
Braves manager Brian Snitker said of that Acuña rocket, “Oh my God. I was wondering if that was maybe the hardest one ever hit. They said it was like third or something. Like I said, you better not leave your seat to go get a beer when he’s coming up, because you might miss something pretty special, and that was.”
After Acuña picked up his 60th stolen base Monday at Colorado in a game in which he drove in five runs with four hits including two doubles and a homer, the electrifying Atlanta leadoff man took things to another level at Dodger Stadium in the most anticipated series of the season, between teams that entered with MLB’s best overall and home records, the Dodgers having won 24 of 28 games and 12 of 13 at home.
They were brought back to earth by the Braves and a prolific lineup that starts, literally and figuratively, with Acuña.
“Obviously the first game was really electric, them showing off their ability head-to-head, trying to battle for the MVP,” Harris said, referring to the series opener, when Acuña hit a grand slam and Betts answered with two homers and four RBIs. “It was a really fun game. Me personally, I think Ronald has the edge right now. He’s homered in every game (in the series before Sunday) and had a big impact.
“But they’re both fun players to watch play. I’m just really enjoying it this series, just being around him as a teammate.”
Betts won NL Player of the Month after hitting .455 with 51 hits, 11 homers, 30 RBIs and a 1.355 OPS in 28 games. But after his two-homer game in the series opener and final game of August, he was 0-for-7 with a walk and four strikeouts Friday and Saturday, while Acuña had a double and two homers in those two Atlanta wins. Betts had three singles Sunday.
“I’m not playing against Ronald Acuña, I’m playing against the Braves,” Betts said early in the series. “We’re trying to beat the Braves. He’s great. Awesome person. Take absolutely nothing away from him. But I’m not playing against him.”
Acuña was asked after Saturday’s game for his thoughts on Betts and what stood out about his main MVP competitor.
“It’s not easy, but the way he makes it look easy,” Acuña said through a translator. “He can play right field, he can play center field, he can play second base, he can play anywhere.”
Braves: Season and playoffs are different beasts
Before Sunday, the Braves already clinched the season series against the Dodgers for the first time in a decade. They went 4-3 against them, their best since 5-2 in 2013.
But Snitker and players made sure the message was, don’t assume that success will carry over to the postseason if they happen to face the Dodgers. The Braves lost to them in the 2020 NLCS and beat them in the 2021 NLCS, the winner in both cases going on to win the World Series.
In the postseason, Morton said, it’s not who was best during the season.
“Just like you saw with the Phillies last year, just like you saw with us in ’21,” Morton said. “The good teams are going to go deep in the playoffs, the hot teams are going to go the furthest probably, more often than not. So I think it’s more about being at a good spot. I think we are. And healthy, as well. Those are the key factors, other than just the magic, you know.”
“I think they’re independent of each other,” the first baseman said, “but coming in and winning a series is always going to be good, facing some good arms and getting a lot of good starts from our guys. That’s gonna feel better than being on the opposite side. But I think they’re pretty independent of each other. … That’s a really good team over there. I don’t think it has any implications if we were to meet in the playoffs or anything like that. A month is a lot of time from now. You saw last year, the Phillies were scorching hot in the playoffs. I don’t think you can put too much weight on it.
“Obviously you want to come in and have good games, good series. But kind of leave it there.”
Morton, 39, has more perspective than other Braves in these matters.
“Every team I’ve been on in the past seven years has played the Dodgers in the playoffs — the Astros, Tampa, and now here,” said Morton, who was on a Houston team that beat the Dodgers in the 2017 World Series, a Tampa Bay team that lost to them in the 2020 World Series, and the Braves team that beat L.A. in the 2021 NLCS. “They’re tough. Regular season and postseason is a little bit different. I think if we run into them again, I don’t think we’re going to come in here with the mindset that we’re just going to dirt-roll the Dodgers. They’re a really tough team, and I wouldn’t expect anything less.”
(Photo: Michael Owens / MLB Photos via Getty Images)