I love the National League East. If they gave a Daytime Emmy Award for best soap opera of 2019, it would have to go the NL East. We have Bryce Harper, bullpen problems up and down the division, managers on the hot seat, cold spells, hot streaks, Pete Alonso mashing, Ronald Acuna Jr. hitting home runs and robbing home runs and stealing bases ... and, on Sunday, not hustling and turning an extra-base hit into a single and a caught stealing.
We'll get to Alonso and the wildness of the past two days in D.C. in a moment, but Sunday's Bravo-approved drama begins with Braves manager Brian Snitker pulling Acuna from a 5-3 victory over the Dodgers after Acuna watched a fly ball fall short of a home run, turning a sure double into a single. He then compounded his mistake by getting caught stealing.
At the time, the Braves were down 3-0, so it was a gutsy decision by Snitker to remove his young star from the game. "He didn't run. You've got to run," Snitker said after the game. "That's not going to be acceptable here. The name on the front is a lot more important than the name on the back. ... You can't let your teammates down."
Acuna said there was "no excuse" for watching the ball instead of running and that he respected Snitker's decision. OK, it sounds as if this is one plotline that won't develop into a full-blown melodrama. Indeed, the hopeful result is a valuable lesson learned for Acuna:
Ronald Acuña Jr. has been taken out of the biggest game yet for watching a potential HR turned single. This will be a GOOD LESSON for a young player with TONS of talent. Snitker Cares about Ñ, THE TEAM & sends a message to everyone about playing the game the right way. #ChopOn pic.twitter.com/ysPYnUczfE— Paul Byrd (@PaulByrd36) August 18, 2019
Acuna has earned a reputation for showboating at times, although I interpret that more as a young kid having fun. Still, there's a time to have fun and a time when you hustle at all costs. As Cubs manager Joe Maddon said from the Little League Classic on Sunday about what advice he'd give Little Leaguers: "Run hard to first base. I think if you run hard to first base, it affirms the rest of your game. I don't think it's any more complicated than that."
Snitker understands this more than most. He's a longtime minor league manager who has seen countless players with a fraction of Acuna's talent play hard at all times and fail to reach the majors. The last thing you want to see is a 21-year-old star develop bad habits.
I think it importantly shows Snitker's confidence in doing his job the way he believes it needs to be done -- a job that continues to mount in pressure as the Braves' bullpen has struggled and Snitker has wavered on how he deploys his relievers. The Braves probably should be running away with the division given the often mediocre results from the Nationals, Phillies and Mets, but instead lead by only 5½ games. Remember, general manager Alex Anthopoulos inherited Snitker as manager. There's always some lack of job security in a situation like that.
Maybe one reason everything seemed calm after the game is the Braves won, as outfielder Rafael Ortega, making his first start of the year, hit a grand slam in the bottom of the sixth off Dodgers rookie Dustin May. The bullpen even tossed four innings of one-hit relief, with Chris Martin, Shane Greene and Mark Melancon -- the three deadline acquisitions -- tossing the final three frames without giving up a hit.
So lesson learned for Acuna. And the bullpen might be rounding into shape. Maybe the Braves will make it a drama-free race in September.
Alonso sets rookie record: The Mets beat the Royals 11-5, trailing 4-3 in the seventh when they rallied for six runs on eight hits -- all singles and doubles. Granted, it wasn't Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis in relief for the Royals, but it was fun to see a team attack the strike zone, put the ball in play and spray it around for a big rally. Alonso hit an RBI double off the top of the wall in right field in that inning, then added his 40th home run in the top of ninth:
That broke Cody Bellinger's National League rookie mark of 39 set in 2017. Next up: Mark McGwire at 49 and then Aaron Judge's MLB record of 52, also set in 2017. After a slow July in which he hit .177 with six home runs, Alonso has bounced back in August, hitting .355/.444/.710. Alonso is now slugging .604. The only Met with a .600 slugging percentage in a season: Mike Piazza, who slugged .614 in 2000 and .607 in 1998.
Nationals bounce back, slug eight home runs: Further evidence that there's no such thing as momentum in baseball (unless you're a pitcher for the Orioles). The Brewers beat the Nationals 15-14 in 14 innings on Saturday, in what was may be the game of the year -- and the toughest loss for a team all season. The Brewers took the lead in the ninth inning of that game when they hit three home runs off Nationals closer Sean Doolittle. The Nationals would tie it to force extra innings and tie it again in the 13th before finally losing. A gut-punch defeat.
Flip ahead to Sunday. Doolittle goes to the injured list because of a knee problem -- he gave up 10 runs and five home runs over his past five outings. So what happens? The Nationals tie a team record with eight home runs in a 16-8 victory. Baseball is wonderful. Juan Soto smashed two of those, bringing his season total to 28, and has hit 50 home runs before turning 21. Only Mel Ott (61) and Tony Conigliaro (56) had more at that age. Kid can swat.
You know the home run binge this season has created all sorts of crazy stats. Here's one more: There have been five games in MLB history in which both teams combined for at least 12 home runs -- three of them have occurred this season and two this weekend:
June 10, 2019: Phillies (5) and D-backs (8)
Aug. 18, 2019: Brewers (4) and Nationals (8)
Aug. 16, 2019: Giants (6) and D-backs (6)
July 2, 2002: Tigers (6) and White Sox (6)
May 28, 1995: Tigers (7) and White Sox (5)
Everyone can swat, it seems.
So can Rafael Devers: The Red Sox trailed the Orioles 6-0 in the third inning, the day after Chris Sale went on the IL because of elbow inflammation. It could be worse than that: Sale will meet with Dr. James Andrews on Monday. So the outlook wasn't brilliant for the Boston nine. In the bottom of third, Devers had an RBI groundout. He doubled in a run in the sixth as the Red Sox scored six runs to take the lead for good. He belted a two-run homer in the seventh. He ended up going 4-for-5 with two doubles, his 27th home run and four RBIs. His season line: .332/.380/.596, 101 RBIs. Kid can swat.
My favorite Devers stat: He's up to 46 doubles. Through the season's first two months, it was Josh Bell who was hitting doubles at an amazing pace. Now it's Devers. His pace projects to 59 for the year. Only six players have hit 60 doubles in a season, the last in 1936. Getting to the record of 67 is an extreme unlikelihood, but I would love 60 doubles. Unless you were alive 83 years ago, you've never seen it happen.
Win of the day: All this drama and the biggest victory of the day probably goes to the Tampa Bay Rays, who rallied for two runs in the eighth and two in the ninth to beat the Tigers 5-4. (On Saturday, Rays pitchers struck out 24 batters and walked none in a 1-0 victory in 13 innings. No, the Tigers are not a good ballclub.) So back-to-back walk-off wins is pretty sweet. Here's Ji-Man Choi doing the honors on Sunday:
Finally ... congrats to Zack Greinke for picking up his 200th career victory, joining CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander as the only active pitchers with 200 wins. ... Congrats to Seattle's Yusei Kikuchi for throwing a "Maddux": a complete-game shutout with fewer than 100 pitches. He blanked the Blue Jays on 96 pitches for his first win since June. ... Congrats to the Indians for splitting their four-game series at Yankee Stadium. Mike Clevinger fanned 10 in five scoreless innings. (Keep an eye out for updates on Corey Kluber, who left his first minor league rehab start after one inning because of abdominal tightness.)
Whew. Let's turn to Monday and see what new home run marks can be set. And what new drama will unfold in the NL East.