With his torn Achilles slow to heal last summer, Ronald Acuña, Jr. hit a career-worst 15 home runs for the Atlanta Braves.
But his power wasn’t gone – it was just on vacation.
Judging by the results of the Venezuelan Home Run Derby Monday, that vacation is over.
The slugging right-fielder of the Atlanta Braves won the 10-man tournament in the final round, finishing ahead of fellow major-leaguers José Altuve, Eduardo Escobar, Eugenio Suárez, Gleyber Torres, Juan Yepez, and the Contreras brothers (William and Willson). Mexican League slugger Balbino Fuenmayor and Giants prospect Diego Rincones also competed.
In the first round, Acuña beat Yepez. He then advanced to the semi-finals, where he and Rincones each hit a dozen balls over the fence ar Estadio Universitario de Caracas. The Contreras brothers, both catchers by trade, hit 10 apiece, along with Fuenmayor.
The finale featured Rincones batting first. He blasted five homers but that wasn’t enough to outlast Acuña, who hammered a half-dozen – including the sixth with a minute and 16 seconds left on the clock. It went to straightaway center field.
Fans, competitors, and coaches that ran onto the field to celebrate their local hero, who had pleaded with the Braves for permission to play a handful of games in his native Venezuela.
Acuña was unable to play last winter while recuperating from the Achilles he tore while trying to catch a Jazz Chisholm drive on July 10, 2021.
The slugger, who hit a career-high 41 home runs as a big-league sophomore with the 2019 Braves, has flaunted his power stroke in previous Home Run Derby competitions – both at the MLB All-Star Game.
He twice lost to Mets first baseman Pete Alonso, in 2019 and 2022, by counts of 20-19, which normally sounds like a ping-pong score.
Still just 25, Acuña was National League Rookie of the Year in 2018, when he had 56 extra-base hits, including 26 homers, and 239 total bases in 111 games for the Braves. The 6-foot, 205-pound right-handed hitter produced a career-best .293 average and stole 16 bases in 21 tries.
He owns a .370 lifetime on-base percentage and .887 OPS.
Barring winter trades or signings by the Braves, Acuña is expected to return to right field and to the top spot in the lineup, with fellow speedster Michael Harris II likely to follow. Harris hit .297 with 19 homers as a 21-year-old fresh from Double-A ball last year, when he won NL top rookie honors over teammate Spencer Strider.
Popular with the fans even while injured, Acuña was the top vote-getter in fan balloting for the 2022 MLB All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium.
At one time last summer, Mets television announcer Gary Cohen expressed concern about the slugger’s recovery timetable.
“When Ronald Acuña starts to hit like Ronald Acuña again,” he said, “we’re in trouble.”
If the Venezuelan Home Run Derby serves as an accurate barometer, that time could be just a few months away.
Acuña is signed to a long-term contract that takes him through the 2028 season if club options are exercised.
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