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AP photo by John Bazemore / Atlanta Braves right fielder Ronald Acuña Jr. takes the field for Thursday night's home game against the Chicago Cubs. Acuña was in the lineup for the first time since a season-ending knee injury last July.

ATLANTA — Ronald Acuña Jr. was playing a video game from the "Call of Duty" franchise when he got an unexpected FaceTime call at 1 a.m. Thursday.

Atlanta Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos wanted to know if Acuña was ready to play.

Not another rehab game in Triple-A, mind you. Anthopoulos was talking about a return to the big leagues.

"Oh yeah," Acuña replied. "Let's go! Right now!"

One of baseball's most dynamic players came off the injury list Thursday, a week ahead of schedule and less than 10 month after he sustained a major knee injury.

Acuña was immediately inserted into Atlanta's lineup, taking his familiar leadoff spot and playing right field against the Chicago Cubs. The 24-year-old received a standing ovation from the Truist Park crowd as he headed to the outfield, and the fans were on their feet again when he went to the plate for his first MLB at-bat in 292 days.

Acuña failed to get a hit in his three at-bats against former teammate Drew Smyly, though he did collect a stolen base on the back end of a double steal after reaching on a forceout. In the field, he made a nice play on a carom off the right-field fence to hold Jason Heyward to a single.

Acuña broke through in the seventh with a two-out single off Scott Effross, then stole second. He struck out to end the eighth, but at that point the Braves were up 5-1 — a margin that stood as they earned their first series win of the season.

"It really was a long, difficult process," Acuña said before the game. "I'm just really excited to be back."

The Braves are certainly excited to have him back. The reigning World Series champions were off to a sluggish start, having won just eight of their first 19 games heading into Thursday to fall 5 1/2 games behind the division-leading New York Mets in the National League East standings. Atlanta is the four-time reigning champ in the division.

Acuña was one of the NL's leading MVP contenders when he completely tore the ACL in his right knee last July 10 as he landed awkwardly while attempting to make a catch on the warning track at Miami's Marlins Park.

At the time, he was hitting .283 with 24 homers, 52 RBIs, 17 stolen bases and a .990 OPS in 82 games. He was about to make his second trip to the MLB All-Star Game

"What he can do offensively, defensively, on the bases, he's a game changer," said third baseman Austin Riley, who was one of the players who came up big for the Braves after Acuña went down. "To have him back in the lineup is huge."

Acuña had tears in his eyes when he was carted off the field in South Florida. He was nothing but smiles Thursday, arriving at the ballpark wearing a yellow Atlanta Hawks jersey with Trae Young's name and No. 11 on it. The star point guard was one of the athletes who texted Acuña to wish him well in his return to the Braves.

It was initially thought the Braves would limit Acuña to designated hitter duties early in his return, lessening the chances of reinjuring the knee, but his performance at Triple-A Gwinnett eased any concerns. Acuña was 2-for-5 in his final game of the rehab stint Wednesday night and hit .368 with three stolen bases in six contests with the Stripers.

"He's done everything," Atlanta manager Brian Snitker said. "He's stolen bases, he's diving back into bases, he's sliding, he's made plays in the outfield There's no limitations at all."

The only concession to the injury will be Acuña's schedule. He won't play on days the Braves travel, and he won't play day games after night games. Also, he'll be restricted to right field when he plays the field — no more center field, at least for now — and the universal DH gives the Braves some flexibility to keep him in the lineup without having to pick up a glove.

Snitker said the current plan is to give Acuña regular days off until he's a full year removed from the injury in July. Of course, that could change if he experiences no setbacks. Already, his projected return to the Braves was pushed up from the May 6 date the team initially set.

Even if he's not able to play every day, Acuña's mere presence should be a huge boost to the struggling Braves. After being the NL's top rookie four years ago, he followed up with 41 homers, 101 RBIs and 37 stolen bases in 2019 for his first All-Star season.

Acuña was on the way to another stellar year when he tore up his knee, which meant he could only watch as the Braves — after spending much of the season under .500 — improbably captured their first World Series title since 1995. He is eager to be part of a championship on the field.

"It motivates me for this year, and will motivate me for years to come," Acuña said through interpreter Franco Garcia. "Obviously, it's not the same being able to play in the World Series as it is to just watch it from the dugout nursing an injury. That's obviously the dream that every kid has growing up, wanting to play in a World Series."

He added, confidently: "There will be more World Series to come."

If anything, Acuña believes he's even faster than he was before the injury. He hopes to be even more of a threat on the basepaths, too.

"Throughout the entire rehabilitation process, there was an added focus on my legs and developing those muscles," he said. "I think I can add speed there. I'm coming in with the intention of running a little bit more."

That showed with the two bags he swiped Thursday.

The Braves designated outfielder Alex Dickerson for assignment to clear a spot on the active roster. The decision to reinstate Acuña could have been motivated by losing Eddie Rosario for eight to 12 weeks. Rosario, the MVP of the NL Championship Series last season, had a laser procedure Wednesday to correct blurred vision and swelling in his right eye.

Before the game, Acuña said he wasn't concerned about Atlanta's slow start.

"It's not how you start," he said. "It's how you finish."

For Acuña, it starts now. And maybe for the Braves, too.

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