Braves look special as Ronald Acuña Jr. and Orlando Arcia power them past Dodgers

LOS ANGELES — Walt Weiss was an All-Star shortstop on the 1998 Braves, the only team in franchise history to have four players hit at least 30 homers until the current one did it. And he was the Colorado Rockies’ shortstop when the team’s “Blake Street Bombers” had three consecutive years (1995-1997) with four 30-plus homer hitters, those three seasons accounting for one-third of the total times it’s been done in major-league history.

The current Braves are the 15th team with a 30-homer quartet. They are the first since the 2019 Minnesota Twins, whose 307 homers set the single-season MLB record that Atlanta is on pace to surpass. The Braves got two more homers Saturday, including Orlando Arcia’s decisive three-run shot with two out in the 10th inning of a 4-2 win against the Dodgers.

It lifted the Braves to their sixth consecutive win and clinched their first four-game series win at Dodger Stadium since 2009. They will go for a sweep Sunday against a team that was baseball’s hottest, winning 24 of 28 games and 12 of 13 home games, before the Braves arrived.

“Super happy for him, super happy for the success he’s had this season, and I feel like he’s made for big moments — we all saw that tonight,” Ronald Acuña Jr. said through a translator after Arcia hit his 17th homer, a career high that ranks eighth in an extraordinarily deep Braves lineup.

The other homer Saturday was from Acuña, and it was epic for its sheer magnitude: a 454-foot liner to straight center that left the bat at 121.2 mph for the third-highest exit velocity on any homer in MLB’s eight-year Statcast era. He has homered in all three games in the Dodger Series, after getting married in L.A. on the morning of Thursday’s series opener and that night becoming baseball’s first 30-homer, 60-stolen base man.

“Unbelievable,” Arcia said of Acuña’s homer Saturday, which sounded as if it exploded off his bat.

Acuña smiled and said through a translator: “I never imagined that was going to be the exit velocity on it, but yeah, I hit it hard.”

The train keeps rolling for the Braves, who have MLB’s best record (90-45) and largest division lead (16 games). No other team has 85 wins.

Weiss, 59, has been the Braves’ bench coach since 2018 when they began their ongoing streak of NL East titles. So he has a unique perspective on this powerhouse Atlanta lineup, as he’s played or coached on five of the 15 teams with four 30-plus homer hitters.

“It’s not the first time I’ve thought about this,” Weiss said a few hours before Saturday’s game, when I asked if he could compare these Braves to those Rockies, including the 1995 team that did the four-players-with-30 thing in a strike-shortened 144-game season.

“I remember Smoltzy (Braves great John Smoltz) pitched against that team in the postseason in ’95 and said it was the best lineup he ever faced, at that time,” Weiss said. “There are a lot of similarities. For me personally, I was hiding at the bottom of that order, I was an on-base guy. And of course the pitcher was hitting back then too (without the DH in the National League), so it was a little bit different.”

The Twins are the only team with five players who hit at least 30 homers, but the Braves can match that with two more homers from Ozzie Albies.

Comparisons are difficult to the Colorado teams he played on, Weiss and I agreed. The Rockies had the advantage of mile-high altitude at home, but also hit in fewer of the “bandbox” ballparks that exist today, and didn’t have a DH. One thing is clear: Colorado had big boppers that could rival the Braves’ heavy hitters but didn’t have anywhere near as much power throughout the lineup.

“You look at this lineup, we’re doing things … you’re talking about historic things,” Weiss said of the Braves, whose 258 homers lead the majors by 45, and are more than 100 homers ahead of 13 teams. They are slugging .501 and could be the first team in history to slug .500 in a full season.

“I knew we were good, but it probably took me until four, five, six weeks ago that I started reading some of this stuff, and I go, ‘Wow,’” Weiss said. “I didn’t realize the bulk that we were putting in, hitting in numbers. Statistically, you’ve got to put us up against some of the best ones. I saw them on MLB Network doing that a couple of weeks ago, comparing us to, like, the ’27 Yankees. I mean, it sounds crazy, but they’re doing it.”

Those 1995 Rockies had four 30-plus homer hitters – Hall of Famer Larry Walker, Dante Bichette, Andres Galarraga, Vinny Castilla – led by Bichette’s 40. But Ellis Burks (14) was their only other hitter with more than eight. The 1996 Rockies had a trio that hit at least 40 apiece, led by Galarraga’s 47. Castilla and Burks each had 40, but Bichette (31) and Walker (18) were the only other Rockies with more than eight.

The 1997 Rockies surpassed the previous seasons with 239 homers including 40 or more from three players, led by Walker’s 49. But after the four who had at least 30 homers, Jeff Reed (17) was the only other Rockie with more than six.

The 2019 Twins, who did have the DH, are the only team in recent history with anything resembling the power-hitting depth of these Braves. They had eight hitters with more than 20 homers, and three others with at least 10.

The Braves, with 27 games still to play, have seven hitters with at least 20 homers, led by NL leader Matt Olson with 43, though he hasn’t hit one in 79 plate appearances since Aug. 14. Acuña, Austin Riley and Marcell Ozuna each have 32, and four others have at least 10 including catcher Travis d’Arnaud, who has 10 in 58 games. Catcher Sean Murphy has 20 in 94 games.

It should be noted the Twins hit all those homers in what’s widely regarded as a “juiced ball” 2019 season when home runs were flying out of parks at record rates, and studies showed that the many balls used that year were harder than usual. The Yankees also topped 300 homers (306) in 2019, and the Astros (288) and Dodgers (279) weren’t far behind.

The current Braves are on pace for 309 homers, while the Dodgers (on track for 255) are the only other MLB team on pace to hit as many as 235.

While the Twins led the majors in homers in 2019, the Astros led in most other categories including average, OBP, slugging percentage and OPS. The Braves lead in all of those and have a staggering 47-point lead (46) in OPS at .845 to the Dodgers’ .798.

Also, while that 2019 Twins team had comparable power to the Braves, Minnesota was a 101-win team swept by the Yankees in a division series. They were an offensive powerhouse, but Minnesota pitchers ranked a modest sixth in the American League in ERA. The Braves lead the NL and rank third in the majors with their 3.78 ERA.

Then there are key intangibles, team chemistry and winning culture. Factors difficult to quantify, but which current and recent Braves agree have been vital to their team’s success during a run of five consecutive division titles — it’s about to be six straight — and a World Series championship in 2021.

Snitker was asked if he was proud of the Braves being where they are, and winning at least 90 games for the fourth time in five full seasons.

“Very much, just how we’ve continued to play really good baseball all year,” he said. “It’s been a solid year. Mission’s not over yet, but I’m proud of the guys for how they come and play every day, and how they prepare and the consistency in their work, and the energy.”

At the outset of the 2021 postseason, Weiss told me he thought the Braves had special chemistry, that he thought they could go all the way. I asked him Saturday if he felt the same about the current team and its clubhouse vibe.

“I think it’s somewhat built into the culture now,” Weiss said. “I was here over 20 years ago as a player, my last few years, and it was a different culture then compared to most places. I mean, the expectation of winning, the expectation of playing the game right, posting (playing every day) like these (current) guys do.”

He added, “I will say, it’s self-perpetuating to a degree. But like anything else, if you don’t take care of it, it’s gone. And so you really have to nurture it, no matter how long it’s been part of your culture.”

The Braves have done that. That’s true from the players through Snitker and the veteran coaching staff, and the roster construction by universally praised general manager and president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos, whose teams have finished in first place annually since he took over after the 2017 season.

“I think Alex does a great job of bringing in the right kind of guys,” Weiss said. “There’s examples every year; look at (utility infielder) Nicky Lopez. He fits in here like a glove. I mean, the guys love him, and he goes out there and he’s balling. But I do think there’s something to be said about bringing in guys from the outside, and this culture bringing out the best in them. I think there’s something to that. Don’t ask me what the formula is, but I do think it’s a real thing. Guys come in here and their play elevates. I think L.A. is like that, too. There are places like that.”

Weiss said it’s been there during the Braves’ greatest eras, in the 1990s and again now.

“I know my first day of spring training as a Brave, I walked in that clubhouse in Orlando, and my feeling was, I don’t want to be the one to screw this thing up,” he said. “Because they had already won a bunch (of division titles) in a row. So I do think there’s something to that, when you come in here as a new player and you want to help, you don’t want to be the one that’s taking away from what they have.”’

(Photo of Orlando Arcia: Jonathan Hui / USA Today)

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