Three Braves takeaways: Replacing Ronald Acuña Jr. at leadoff, Marcell Ozuna sizzles and more

ATLANTA — For a team that rarely slumped for more than a few days while pummeling opponents throughout last season, it’s been a slog for Atlanta Braves hitters in 2024. Only superb pitching from their top three starters and continued torrid slugging from Marcell Ozuna have prevented Atlanta from falling a country mile behind Philadelphia in the National League East.

But despite losing 11 of 18, including dropping two of three at Pittsburgh and three of four at home against the Washington Nationals last week, Braves players and manager Brian Snitker saw encouraging signs in recent days from a few key hitters in an offense that was mostly moribund for five frustrating weeks.

It won’t be easy for the Braves to overcome a season-ending knee injury to leadoff dynamo Ronald Acuña Jr. Still, they think recent upticks from Matt Olson and Michael Harris II plus the return of Austin Riley and Sean Murphy from injury absences have the Braves positioned for their first hitting surge since late April.

Here are three takeaways on the Braves, who got six innings of one-run ball from fourth starter Charlie Morton in a 3-1 win against Oakland on Sunday to finish a 3-4 homestand against the Nationals and Oakland A’s:

Harris, Albies sharing leadoff

Acuña was entrenched at leadoff when healthy since early 2019 and had a majors-leading .416 OBP and NL-best 1.012 OPS to go with 41 homers and 73 steals en route to his unanimous 2023 NL MVP award. Now the Braves are handing the leadoff spot with a platoon of left-handed-hitting center fielder Harris and switch-hitting second baseman Ozzie Albies, who has batted .327 against lefties this season after leading MLB qualifiers at .391 in 2023.

Ozzie Albies delivered the big hit against the A’s on Sunday from the fifth spot in the order. (Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)

Harris had three hits including two doubles leading off Saturday when the Braves got nine hits and seven RBIs from the top four spots in their order. They still lost 11-9, only their fourth loss in 51 games when scoring eight or more runs since the beginning of last season. Chris Sale, presumptive NL Pitcher of the Month for May, allowed four times as many runs (eight) in four innings Saturday as he allowed in 32 innings during his five May starts.

Still, it was the kind of offensive burst the Braves have been waiting for. It was their norm last season and even early this season before a nearly lineup-wide slump consumed Atlanta’s offense beginning in late April. They won with just seven hits Sunday, but three came with runners in scoring position including Albies’ run-scoring single in the eighth inning from the fifth spot, where he’s batting in games against right-handed starters.

Metrics say they’re overdue

Despite their struggles, the Braves led MLB in hard-hit percentage (44.5) and average exit velocity (90.4 mph) before Sunday, two metrics in which they also led a year ago, when they topped most major offensive categories including 307 homers to tie baseball’s single-season record.

They are 16th in homers this season with barely one per game (59 in 57 games), including four for Acuña in 49 games before his torn ACL, and three homers (and 19 RBIs) for Riley in 44 games. Riley averaged 36 homers and 99 RBIs in the past three seasons.

According to various metrics, the Braves have been unlucky, including an NL-leading 53 outs on balls hit at 105 mph or above before Sunday. Harris was the NL individual leader with 14.

“Yeah, we’re in a good spot,” Harris said. “Like I’ve said, we’re gonna turn this around pretty soon and (Saturday) was a good experiment to show we’re coming back.”

“I feel like that’s kind of the name of the game for us, for whatever reason,” said Austin Riley, who doubled and had an RBI single Saturday, then doubled and lined out twice Sunday. “But you’ve just got to keep squaring up balls, and we’re doing that.”

Ozuna continues to sizzle

While all of the Braves’ eight 2023 All-Stars — Olson, Albies, Acuña, Murphy, Riley, Orlando Arcia, Spencer Strider, Bryce Elder — have scuffled or been injured in the first two months, Ozuna continues a scorching pace he began May 2, 2023, which carried him to a 40-homer, 100-RBI season and has him leading the NL now with 17 homers and 53 RBIs.

His RBI total was the most by a Brave through 56 games since he had the same 17 homers and 53 RBIs through 56 in a shortened 2020 season, when he finished as the NL leader in both. Before Ozuna, Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews in 1953 was the last Brave to have at least 53 RBIs through 56 games.

Ozuna has 28.8 percent of the Braves’ 59 homers and 21.4 percent of their 247 RBIs, the highest percentages by any NL player. During his current 26-game on-base streak, he’s hit .330 with eight homers and a 1.054 OPS. He has eight more homers and 20 more RBIs than Atlanta’s next-highest totals (Olson’s nine and 33), but Ozuna thinks it’s only a matter of time before the lineup clicks consistently.

“Everybody knows that we are coming,” he said. “We just have to have the same patience and confidence, and put everything together.”

(Photo of Marcell Ozuna: Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)

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