ST. LOUIS — Having Ronald Acuña Jr. around on a daily basis would certainly be the preference. But while persevering without their young star, the Braves have managed to reconstruct a lineup that still possesses seven guys capable of totaling 20 homers this year.
Think about that. The Braves set the franchise record in 2003 when six of their players tallied a 20-homer season. That record will remain safe this year. But the recent additions of Joc Pederson, Adam Duvall and Jorge Soler have powerfully lengthened a lineup that is once again receiving MVP-caliber production from Freddie Freeman.
“It just looks like a lineup that has the potential to do some damage like we did today,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said.
Despite not having the same outcome in 18 consecutive games, the Braves have still managed to move within 2 1/2 games of the first-place Mets in the National League East. Their bid to finally encounter the consistent success they may need to win a fourth consecutive division title was strengthened by this past weekend’s arrivals of Soler and Duvall.
Soler made his presence known in this latest victory, when he drilled Cardinals starter Jon Lester’s elevated 0-1 cutter over the left-center-field fence for a two-run homer in the first. The 29-year-old slugger hasn’t been able to recapture the magic he had while hitting 48 homers for the Royals in 2019, but he has hit five of his 14 homers over his past eight games.
“When he got into the clubhouse [in Atlanta on Saturday] Chipper [Jones] and I both said, ‘Woah! This is a large human and he can hit the ball far,’” Freeman said.
With Acuña (24), Freeman (23, now 24), Austin Riley (22) and Dansby Swanson (20), the Braves entered Tuesday as the only MLB team with four players who have hit 20-plus homers for their club this year. Ozzie Albies needs just three more homers to join the group.
Though Acuña will spend the rest of the season recovering from knee surgery, the Braves have added another 20-homer season from Duvall, who tallied 22 home runs before being acquired from the Marlins. Pederson has totaled 13 with the Cubs and Braves this year. Soler has combined to hit 14 for the Braves and Royals.
Catcher and pitcher are the only positions within the Braves’ lineup that won’t have a player who has already hit 20 homers or is in position for a 20-homer season. And the catcher position should improve offensively when Travis d’Arnaud returns from the injured list within the next week.
Lengthening this lineup will take the burden off Freeman, Albies, Swanson and Riley, who have felt enhanced pressure to carry the load since Acuña was injured on July 10.
“Some days, you feel like you’ve got to do it all with Ozzie, Austin and everyone,” Freeman said. “So when you have Adam Duvall hitting sixth, and you have guys down there at the bottom of the lineup that can change the game, that’s just huge.”
Once Soler gave Fried an early lead with his two-run shot, Freeman, Riley and Swanson recorded consecutive singles. Duvall walked ahead of Pederson, who again showed his capabilities against a lefty by directing an 0-2 pitch to left field for an RBI single.
Lester’s struggles continued when Freeman hit a solo homer in the second. The reigning NL MVP has hit .376 with 11 homers and a 1.054 OPS dating back to June 10. During this 48-game span, he leads the Majors in hitting and ranks fifth in OPS.
There’s no doubt the Braves would still love to have Acuña in the leadoff spot. But in his absence, they have rebuilt a lineup that could make lots of noise into October.
“We’ve dealt with a lot of injuries, and losing Ronald is really, really hard to make up,” Freeman said. “I applaud [Braves president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos] for going out there and getting us some guys. Our lineup has lengthened tremendously since the Trade Deadline. It’s just nice knowing that it keeps coming and coming and there’s a guy who can change the game even as you get lower and lower in the lineup.”