On Tuesday night, the Braves were holding onto a narrow 7-6 lead over the Marlins. In a tight NL East division race, every win matters, and the Braves were looking for insurance. There were two out, runners at the corners, and it was the bottom of the seventh. The pitch from Adam Conley came in at 86 mph, left out over the middle of the plate. Ronald Acuña, Jr. shot it into the seats in right field.
It was his second home run in what would remain a 10-6 victory—his first homer had been on the first pitch of the game. The day before, again facing the Marlins, he homered to lead off both games of a doubleheader, something that has been done by only three other players in major league history. He homered in Sunday’s game, an 8-7 win against the Brewers, and he homered in Saturday’s 4-2 loss. Five games, six home runs, three of them coming in the leadoff spot. And all off the bat of a 20-year-old rookie, with less than a hundred major-league games under his belt. Only one player in major league history has homered to lead off at least three straight games; since at least 1908, no one as young as Acuña has ever homered in five straight.
Since being called up on April 25th—and he very well could have been called up earlier, if not for the Braves gaming his service time—Acuña has a .288/.348/.576 batting line. If not for the existence of Juan Soto, that alone would make him the easy frontrunner for NL Rookie of the Year. An ugly ACL sprain, an injury that initially looked severe enough to be season-ending, knocked Acuña out of action from late May until late June, but even the lengthy DL stint didn’t slow Acuña down. In fact, his numbers only improved.
But even with his consistently excellent performance at the plate, Acuña says that he hadn’t felt himself get truly hot until this most recent stretch of games: the eight games that he’s played starting August 8th. These past eight games have seen Acuña hit eight of his 14 post-DL homers. He's batted .471 with a 1.749 OPS, numbers so ridiculous that they take double-checking to believe. He is doing all this as a rookie who won’t turn 21 until December, and watching him go on such an incredible tear has been one of the best things baseball has had to offer this season. His teammates and manager say they’ve never seen anything like it. Ender Inciarte, who played alongside the likes of Mike Trout and Mookie Betts in the 2017 All-Star Game, went as far as to say that Acuña is the best player he’s ever seen.
Acuña has not only put together one of the most thrilling, powerful streaks in baseball history, he has done so while playing with a contagious energy and love for baseball that he says he’s always had. He’s not afraid to express affection for his teammates, or to bounce around in the dugout in celebration. Acuña is everything baseball should be in 2018, and all eyes were on him as he stepped to the plate on Wednesday in Miami, wondering if the incredible show we’ve been treated to could possibly keep on going.
Instead, we saw him get injured. With his first pitch, Marlins pitcher José Ureña drilled him in the elbow with a fastball—97.5 mph, among the fastest he’s thrown all season, obviously thrown with the intent to injure. Instead of a celebration, we got a brawl. And instead of waiting to see if Acuña’s historic hot streak will continue, we wait on X-rays and CT scans that will tell us how long Acuña will be away from the game to which he’s brought so much over just a few months.
This didn’t have to happen. Baseball injuries are often cruel in the sense that they are random, meaningless, striking almost as acts of God. This injury was cruel in that it was a deliberately inflicted cruelty, a targeted act of harm against Acuña. And for what? For tossing his bat on a home run crushed to center field? For appearing too ready to celebrate his literally once-in-a-lifetime achievement? Or was it simply the fact that he’s good, and his team is winning, that warranted punishment?
Some commentators have tried to find justification for the act of throwing at batters intentionally, speculating that Acuña might have somehow warranted getting a projectile hurled at him at lethal speed. This talking point, phrased in terms of respect for the game and its traditions, is pushed every time a player is needlessly injured through retaliatory hit-by-pitches or in a brawl, and it has never once been convincing. It takes a truly brain-rotten lack of perspective to think that anyone deserves to be put at risk of a grievous physical injury—a grievous physical injury, in the case of baseball players, that could permanently jeopardize their livelihood—for the crime of being a little too happy about how great they are at sports.
When I watch baseball, I don’t want to see injuries, and I don’t want to see brawls, and I don’t want to see dudes being irrationally angry at each other for dumbass reasons. I want to see the game I love being played by the best athletes in the world. Any practices that endanger the people playing the game, no matter how long they may have existed in the sport, shouldn’t be tolerated, much less encouraged. It’s unfathomable to think that there are people who love the game of baseball, who care about its growth and development, and yet would rather see one of its most exciting young players mowed down than allow a single dangerous tradition to be relegated to the pages of history.
If there is anything positive to be found in this situation, though, it’s that people who hold these opinions seem to be growing ever more in the minority. The particular circumstances of Acuña’s injury—the obvious intent behind it, the lack of any real provocation, and the historic context of Acuña’s streak—have made it stand out in a way that might make it a tipping point for baseball’s response to headhunting. While there have been people trying to make justifications, the response both within the sport and outside it has largely been one of condemnation. There have been calls for stiffer suspensions for pitchers who throw at batters intentionally. All this is evidence of a change in baseball’s culture: a change that has come gradually, and with a great deal of resistance, but is happening nonetheless.
It’s sad, though, that the change has happened too gradually to prevent this from happening to Acuña. He didn’t deserve to have his achievement taken away from him, even if only for a day. His home run streak remains active at five. Let’s hope he can get back to it soon.