3 takeaways from the Braves trip to the Steel City

The Braves series with the Pirates created plenty of mixed emotions over the weekend, as the beginning of the series started out about as bad as it could, then a win on Sunday to avoid the sweep ended in bittersweet fashion with the news that came out later that night.

Atlanta Braves v Pittsburgh Pirates
Atlanta Braves v Pittsburgh Pirates / Justin Berl/GettyImages

Ronald Acuña Jr.'s injury is devastating

The Braves had a great win on Sunday to avoid a road sweep in Pittsburgh, but even after the final out was made, it was hard to feel great about it.

Ronald Acuña Jr. went down in pain with a non-contact injury as he took a weird turn to get back to second after faking going for a steal of third. It didn't look good in the moment, but after the game, Acuña was hopeful that it wasn't the same as his season-ending knee injury in 2021.

Unfortunately for Braves fans, for MLB fans and most importantly for him, it was the same injury, but not on the same knee, and the 2023 unanimous NL MVP will not be playing baseball for the rest of the season.

I'll be the first to admit that I have been critical of Acuña this season as a lot of Braves fans have and it was for good reason. I didn't expect him to live up to his 2023 record-breaking season, but he wasn't anywhere close to that and it was hurting the Braves' offense.

But nowhere in that was a want for him to not be on the field. Even though Acuña was never himself this season, every at-bat was still a must-watch because of what we know he could do and when he did it in flashes this year, man, it was a lot of fun.

Braves baseball just isn't the same without him. It wasn't in 2021, even in the run to the World Series, though fun as it was, it never felt the same without Acuña. That's what made the last two seasons all the more heartbreaking. We all know, especially thanks to his Players Tribune article before the season, how much missing the World Series and then losing the last two years killed him. And how much the injury and not being able to play baseball affected him as well.

All of that and the knowledge of how much he loves baseball and loves the Braves, makes it all even harder to stomach.

But like the rest of the team, fans will have to move on. They still have a great roster and here is hoping that a devastating loss like this can energize the team to play for Acuña and pick up the slack for him with him out of the lineup.

It will also give the Braves a new look at the top of the lineup, which obviously wasn't going to change with Acuña healthy, but was arguably the worst part of the lineup in the Braves's offensive struggles over the past month.

Chris Sale dominates again

After the downer start to the article, let's pick up the mood with a positive from the series and Sunday in particular and that was future 2024 NL Cy Young Chris Sale's masterpiece on the mound.

Four hits, one earned run, eight strikeouts and one walk in seven innings of work. I keep waiting for Chris Sale to have a bad outing, to not look unhittable, but it just isn't happening. The guy is putting together possibly the best season of his career at this rate and that is saying something.

Strikeout-wise, it isn't the best season of his career, but results wise, it's darn close.

His ERA right now of 2.12 is basically the same as his career-low of 2.11 in 2018 when he finished fourth in NL Cy Young voting.

And though his strikeout rate of 11 might not be close to the 13.5 rate in 2017 in Boston, his walk rate is the lowest it has been in his career at 1.3. And that strikeout rate is still very good.

Here are his NL ranks amongst starting pitchers thus far: ERA (2.12, 4th), innings pitched (63.2, 10th), WHIP (0.85, 2nd), oppsoing batting average (.193, 4th), K/9 (11.03, 5th), BB/9 (1.27, 1st), K/BB (8.67, 1st).

And for all you advanced statheads: Barrel/PA% (2.0, 1st), average exit velocity (84.8, 2nd only to Max Fried), hard-hit percentage (28.8, 2nd only to Max Fried).

The point being, Sale is really good. And he showed that again on Sunday.

The fifth starter spot could be a problem for while with Smith-Shawver out

AJ Smith-Shawver's addition to the IL follwoing his impressive 2024 debut was a gut punch. Since losing Spencer Strider, the Braves have been trying to figure out who their fifth starter is going to be and it did not go well in its next iteration on Friday.

Ray Kerr and Darius Vines, both candidates for the spot, pitched in the 11-5 loss to open the series against the Buccos and well, the Pirates scored 11 runs. It doesn't take an advanced baseball statistician to figure out neither pitched well.

Kerr gave up five runs and seven hits in four innings. He impressively struck out six in those four innings inconsistent while walking one, but he was too inconsisent, leaving too many balls over the plate. Darius Vines was worse, giving up six hits, six runs and striking out just two in three innings.

Kerr should get another shot at the next start, he looked good at points, he just has to put together a full game and he can help this team in Smith-Shawver's absence.

If Vines or Kerr or even Smith-Shawver when he returns doesn't work out, Zach Logue has been pitching well down in triple-A with a 2.45 ERA in 40.1 innings, six starts and nine appearances.

He nearly threw a seven-inning no-hitter six days ago in a doubleheader against the Memphis Redbirds. It ended up being the fifth one-hit shutout in Gwinnett history and at this point, the Braves should be ready to try anything for that fifth starter. Don't be suprised if he's up sooner rather than later.

It's a minor problem to have right now, but as the Braves continue to fall further behind the MLB's best record in the Philadelphia Phillies, they need wins wherever they can get them.

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