On the morning of July 10, the Atlanta Braves were 43-44 and five games behind the Mets in the NL East. Later that day they lost MVP candidate Ronald Acuña Jr. to a season-ending torn right ACL when he jumped for a ball in right field and landed awkwardly. It was a devastating injury and it was easy to think the .500-ish Braves were about to fall out of the race.
Instead, Atlanta won 44 of its remaining 73 games, moving from five games back in the NL East to winning the division by a comfortable 6 1/2 games. GM Alex Anthopoulos remade the outfield at the trade deadline with Adam Duvall, Joc Pederson, Eddie Rosario, and Jorge Soler, and now the Braves are two wins away from their first pennant in 22 years even without Acuña.
"Yeah, I'd probably have to say it's one of the hardest moments of my career, to be honest. Just to be here at the stadium and not be able to join my teammates out there in the field and play with them," Acuña told reporters, including Gabriel Burns of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, about not being able to play prior to NLCS Game 2. "But there's nothing you can do about that. So for me, it's just about being here and continuing to give them the support as if I were playing."
Acuña estimated his rehab is 70 percent complete, though he cautioned he won't begin running until November, and likely won't begin baseball activities until January. He added it's possible he won't be able to return until next May. Ultimately, it's up to the doctors and trainers to clear him for baseball activity and a return to game action.
"I don't have a (return) date in mind," Acuña told Burns. "The knee is a big focal point as far as the structure and stability for any athlete. I'm going to take my time with it, that's for sure. But I know that once I'll be ready and once I feel like I'm ready to go, obviously I'll express that. As far as the timetable is concerned, if the trainers say May, then May. If the trainers say April, then April. So really, whatever the trainers and doctors and team medical staff say."
Duvall, Pederson, Rosario, and Soler will all become free agents after the season (Duvall and Pederson have mutual options for 2022 in their contracts that one side seems likely to decline), and Marcell Ozuna figures to be unavailable early next year as he likely serves a suspension under the league's domestic violence policy, meaning Atlanta may have to build an entire outfield over the winter.
The 2022 outfield is something to worry about in the offseason, however. For now, the Braves have managed to win a fourth straight division title and get to within two wins of the World Series. Atlanta has been on a remarkable run the last few months even after losing their best player to a season-ending knee injury.
Acuña, 23, hit .283/.394/.596 with 24 home runs and 17 stolen bases in 82 games prior to his injury. He is three years into a bargain eight-year contract that will pay him $100 million, with affordable club options for 2027 and 2028.