ATLANTA — Ronald Acuña Jr. said his chase to become the second-youngest player in major league history to hit 40 home runs in a single season never weighed on him.
"If I hit it, I hit it," Acuña noted Thursday afternoon through an interpreter an hour or so after he'd done just that in the Atlanta Braves' 5-4 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies. "If I don't, I don't."
But the big grin on his face belied that statement. For this wasn't just one for the record books. It was a third-inning bomb launched into the second level of SunTrust Park, maybe 20 feet from the left-field foul pole, a towering blast that briefly put the Braves on top 2-0.
"He had to be thinking about it," Atlanta manager Brian Snitker said. "When he fell asleep at night, it was probably all he was thinking about when he woke up. He might relax now and really go off."
One more win (or one more Washington Nationals loss) and all the Braves can relax and celebrate their second straight National League East title. Acuña can even legally swig a little champagne this time around — he hadn't yet turned 21 when last year's division crown was clinched.
But Thursday will be remembered by more than a couple of Braves as a pretty dang good day for far more than Acuña's homer, which made him only the third player in MLB history to have a 40-homer season before the age of 22. The other two were former Braves legend Eddie Mathews — who hit 47 homers in 1953 as a 21-year-old, though he was a month or two older than Acuña when he connected on his 40th — and Mel Ott, who clubbed 42 as a 20-year-old in 1929.
As for those other memorable storylines, let's start with Atlanta starter Mike Soroka, who got his 13th win of the season against four defeats, despite watching his otherworldly ERA slightly swell to 2.60 (it was 2.57 at Thursday's dawn). Even with his two earned runs allowed in five innings, he can still record the second-best rookie ERA since 2000, the Miami Marlins' Jose Fernandez compiling a 2.19 ERA in 2013.
Then there was Freddie Freeman, whose two-run single in the fifth snapped a season-worst seven-game streak without an RBI. Freeman — like Acuña, a serious league MVP candidate — now has 119 RBIs to go with his 38 homers this year.
Finally, there was rookie Austin Riley, who hit his first home run since Aug. 2 but his 18th this season. If Riley can reclaim even a smidgeon of the form that had him swatting 16 homers before the All-Star break, the 240-pound 22-year-old could become a valuable asset come the postseason.
None of those efforts, however, could top Acuña, who also leads the NL in runs scored with 123. That also is within eight of the Braves' record of 131 totaled by Dale Murphy in 1983.
"Absolutely incredible," Acuña said of his 40th round-tripper. "To be compared to superstars, Hall of Famers. It's a motivator as well. Just thank God. Pray for continued good health."
Of course, the homers aren't the only thing Acuña wants to collect at least 40 of by the end of the regular season. He currently has 37 stolen bases, which is tops in the NL, but with three more steals he'll join a club that currently includes only four players in history to have hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in a single major league season. Those four are Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco, Alex Rodriguez and Alfonso Soriano.
Oddly, unlike Mathews and Ott, who are both Hall of Famers, none of the four 40-40 guys are in the Hall.
But Snitker believes Acuña is just scratching the surface of a career that may one day put him there.
"It's crazy the year he's had," Snitker said. "And he's only going to get better. With the talent he has, if he stays grounded, the sky's the limit."
With the talent so many of these young Braves have, the sky could again be the limit for Atlanta, much as it was throughout the 1990s, despite the Bravos winning only one World Series for their five appearances in the Fall Classic that decade.
Nor would Acuña appear to be the only Brave with a legitimate Hall of Fame dream. The 30-year-old Freeman also looks like someone who could one day be in that conversation, along with 22-year-old second baseman Ozzie Albies. Soroka's also just 22 and has the calm, disciplined demeanor of past Braves pitchers Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz, all Hall of Famers.
A stunning stat to show what this franchise has delivered since that 1991 NL West pennant, which was the first of 14 straight: According to the Braves, they are looking for their 19th division title and are currently tied with the New York Yankees for the most such crowns in MLB history. When you're tied with the Yankees in anything except having baseball's most obnoxious, arrogant fans, you should take a bow.
Yet Thursday's biggest bow must be reserved for Acuña and that infectious smile he so often displays, which would surely earn him no less than a tie with former Atlanta center fielder Andruw Jones for best Braves grin ever.
Said Soroka of his fellow rookie, with whom he also teamed up on the Mississippi Braves farm club: "We knew he had this in him. I remember him hitting a changeup over the center-field fence in Mississippi. He's special. He's going to be a lot of fun to watch for a long time."
If they can keep stringing together seasons like this, so, once again, will be the entire Atlanta Braves team.
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