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Atlanta’s Sidelined Superstar Can Picture Himself Out There

HOUSTON — As Atlanta Braves outfielder Jorge Soler stepped into the batter’s box on Tuesday for the first at-bat of the 2021 World Series, one …

Atlanta’s Sidelined Superstar Can Picture Himself Out There

HOUSTON — As Atlanta Braves outfielder Jorge Soler stepped into the batter’s box on Tuesday for the first at-bat of the 2021 World Series, one his teammates sitting in the dugout pretended he was up there instead. It’s not that outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. wants to take Soler’s job; it’s that he misses doing his.

“In all of the moments, even in the key ones, I’m imagining myself there taking that at-bat,” Acuña said in Spanish on Wednesday before Game 2 against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park.

In reaching the World Series for the first time since 1999, Atlanta overcame a major obstacle: the absence of their best player.

Acuña, 23, is a dazzling performer on the field, one of the very best in the entire sport. He can run fast, hit balls hard and throw with accuracy. He won the 2018 National League Rookie of the Year Award. The two-time All-Star was playing like a candidate for the Most Valuable Player Award — .283 average, .990 on-base-plus-slugging-percentage, 24 home runs, 17 stolen bases — before his season ended abruptly on July 10.

While running after a fly ball against the Marlins in Miami, Acuña made a leaping attempt and landed on his right leg. His knee buckled and he tumbled into the outfield wall. The damage was substantial: a torn anterior cruciate ligament, which required surgery and is normally followed by eight to 12 months of recovery.

Acuña tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee when trying to make a catch in July. Credit…Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

That might have been the most pivotal day of an eventful season for Atlanta. Because of Acuña’s injury, General Manager Alex Anthopoulos went on a trading spree to bolster the outfield. Eddie Rosario, Joc Pederson, Jorge Soler and Adam Duvall were all brought in. And Anthopoulos’s gambles paid off as the players acquired helped power the team to the World Series.

The four new outfielders were asked to fill in for Acuña as well as Marcell Ozuna, a former All-Star who is on administrative leave while being investigated by Major League Baseball for domestic violence. Collectively, they are hitting .289 with nine home runs and 28 R.B.I. entering Friday. Rosario was the most valuable player of the National League Championship Series and Soler homered in the first at-bat of the World Series.

“Spectacular — they’re doing an incredible job,” said Acuña, who is signed to an eight-year $100 million deal through 2026. “They’ve helped the team and that’s what we needed the most.”

Freddie Freeman, a star first baseman, added: “It’s pretty amazing that we tried to cover with four guys to pick up Ronald’s performance. I think we were able to accomplish that, even though we want Ronald here.”

Watching them succeed, though, has a bittersweet undertone for Acuña. After helping the team win its fourth straight N.L. East division title, he wants nothing more right now than to be playing alongside his teammates. He initially planned to settle for the next best option: joining them in the clubhouse and dugout for home games at Truist Park.

But when the 88-win Atlanta reached the N.L.C.S. against the 106-win Los Angeles Dodgers, Acuña asked the team’s athletic trainers whether he could travel for the World Series should they advance. They needed to sign off, he said, because they are very cautious with him and want him to avoid any potentially harmful movement.

“It’s a dream to go to the World Series,” he said, adding later: “I always love being with my teammates. I live more with them than with my real family. This is also my family, so I told them that I want to be with the team as far as we go.”

Despite not being active, Acuña has blended in with the rest of the team, showing up to workouts and wearing his uniform in the dugout during games. Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

For Atlanta Manager Brian Snitker, it was a no-brainer to bring Acuña to the World Series, along with other crucial players who were injured, including starter Mike Soroka (re-torn Achilles tendon) and catcher Stephen Vogt (sports hernia surgery).

“I’m really glad these guys can be here to experience this with their teammates,” Snitker said. “Ronald had a big hand in this until he was hurt. I want them to experience it, because they are part of this club.”

Although he would have much preferred Acuña be on the field, Snitker said Acuña’s trip to the World Series was still valuable. Snitker added, “I want you to remember that feeling when we get to spring training, how hard it is to get here, how hard you have to work and be consistent every day in order to put yourself in this position.”

Watching an entire game from the dugout is a new experience for Acuña, who noted that this was the most significant injury of his career. Known for his vibrant playing style and personal flair, Acuña has channeled that into cheerleading from the dugout — while donning his playing uniform. He constantly talks to and pumps up his teammates.

When catcher Travis d’Arnaud smashed a solo home run in a 7-2 loss in Game 2 that tied the best-of-seven series at one game apiece, Acuña waved his arms and smacked the dugout railing with glee. One of Acuña’s closest friends on the team, the star second baseman Ozzie Albies, recently said Acuña had offered words of encouragement throughout the playoffs, including reminders of how much he wants them to win a title this year. It would be the franchise’s first since 1995.

“It feels weird,” Acuña said of not playing. “I feel like totally upset because I’m part of this team and I would love to be out there playing and giving my best and my 100 percent. But God’s time is perfect, and it’s my turn to be on the bench supporting my teammates.”

Among the players brought in to fill in for Acuña are Eddie Rosario, who was named the most valuable player of the N.L.C.S. and Adam Duvall who led the N.L. in R.B.I.Credit…Elsa/Getty Images
Also brought in near the trading deadline to fill the gaps were Jorge Soler, who homered in his first World Series at-bat, and Joc Pederson who starred in the division series.Credit…Elsa/Getty Images

It is also, of course, his turn to get healthy. For the first month and a half after surgery, Acuña said he wondered whether he would ever walk or run again because his leg felt so weak. But now, he happily reported that he was showing progress.

He doesn’t need crutches anymore, nor does he have a noticeable limp. He spends roughly three and a half hours a day in rehabilitation, he said, and he is using weights to strengthen his leg little by little. And soon, he said, he will start swinging a bat and loosening his throwing arm. The rough estimate for his return is early next season, in May.

“If it was up to me, I’ll be back sooner,” Acuña said. “But I’m not in a rush. I have to do everything calmly because it’s my knee and it’s the support of the entire body. When I feel good, I’ll be back.”

As Acuña walked through the tunnel connecting the visitor’s dugout at Minute Maid Park to the clubhouse on Wednesday, he was enveloped in a hug. It was from Ralph Garr, 75, the former Atlanta star outfielder who serves as a special assignment scout for the team.

“I love you to death,” he told Acuña. “How you doing? You got them playing good.”

Acuña laughed. Earlier, he admitted that he was already imagining the team back in the World Series next year — “but with me playing this time.”

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