ATLANTA — St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, the reigning National League MVP and a five-time Silver Slugger Award winner, has played against some mighty strong offensive teams in his 13-year major-league career. But he says he’s never seen a better one than the Atlanta Braves and doesn’t know whether there have been many comparable offenses, period, in his playing days or long before.
“It might go down as the best offense in 100 years,” Goldschmidt said before Thursday’s series finale between the Braves and Cardinals. “I think they’re so consistent, they take their walks, obviously they’re driving the ball. They don’t give away at-bats. Basically everything you want in a hitter, they almost all do it, and do it throughout the whole game.
“Definitely can put up what they’re doing against probably the top five offenses of all time. That’s very, very impressive.”
A few hours after he said that, the Braves reinforced his assertion, hitting five homers — two by Ronald Acuña Jr. — in an 8-5 win against the Cardinals to avert a sweep at Truist Park.
The Braves scored three runs in the first inning including the the second line-drive leadoff homer from Acuña in less than a week, and the 32nd leadoff homer of his career to extend his own franchise record. Twelve have come on the first pitch of the first inning, including this one against Adam Wainwright, the 42-year-old Cardinals veteran and former Braves prospect making his final start in Atlanta.
Three batters later, Eddie Rosario’s two-run single drove in Ozzie Albies, who followed Acuña with a walk, and Matt Olson, who doubled.
The Cardinals answered with three runs in the second off Braves ace Max Fried, but he didn’t give up any more runs in his six innings, and the Braves offense was just getting started.
“It’s special,” Fried said of the Braves’ offensive firepower. “It makes it easier on me knowing that if I just keep pitching and hold it right there, there’s a good chance of pulling away, especially with how much game we had left. It takes some pressure off of me. It’s nice knowing that they can explode at any time.”
Olson’s solo homer in the fifth inning, his majors-leading 47th, put the Braves ahead to stay in a win that reduced their magic number to 10 to clinch a sixth consecutive NL East title. Olson has homered in four consecutive games and tied legendary Braves Hank Aaron (1971) and Eddie Mathews (1953) for second on the franchise’s single-season list with 47. He trails only Andruw Jones, who hit a franchise-record 51 in 2005.
“Pretty good company,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “Wow. That says something, with guys like Chipper (Jones), Andruw, Javy (Lopez), all them kind of guys that have come through here. David Justice, Ronny Gant, all those guys. You’re talking about some big-time names and great players. That’s pretty special.”
Michael Harris II and Acuña added bases-empty homers in the sixth and Travis d’Arnaud hit a two-run homer in the seventh for the Braves, who are on pace to shatter the MLB single-season team home run record.
Both Acuña homers came on first pitches from Wainwright, the second pushing the lead to 6-3 and chasing Wainwright from the game with two out in the sixth inning. Wainwright, who is retiring after the season, is a Georgia native from St. Simons Island and had about 200 friends and family members at the game. Half of the eight hits he allowed were homers, twice as many homers as he’d given up in any game the past two seasons.
“Very gifted team,” Wainwright said of the Braves. “Gosh, the home run to Acuña and the home run to Harris were balls that were about to be in the dirt. I don’t even know what to do different there besides have 3 more or 4 more miles an hour on my heater to keep them off of that. The ball to Harris is going to bounce. The ball to Acuña … I executed that perfectly. That ball is down and away off the play, down, and he hit it out to center. It’s amazing. It’s really impressive.”
Acuña said through an interpreter, “Wainwright’s a living legend, and he deserves all the respect that he gets. With that said, I just feel like we have a really good team. We have great pitching, good offense, and I just think we’re really balanced.”
The Braves did all that damage without third baseman Austin Riley, who was out of the lineup for the first time this season due to a flu bug that Snitker said kept Riley up much of the previous night. The Braves had him stay home Thursday.
Olson leads RBIs (116) as well as homers, and Acuña last week became the first 30-60 player in MLB history, his totals since rising to 34 homers and a majors-leading 63 stolen bases. That puts him within reach of becoming just the fifth member of the hallowed 40-40 club, along with Jose Canseco (1988), Barry Bonds (1996), Alex Rodriguez (1998) and Alfonso Soriano (2006). None of them had more than 46 steals in their 40-40 seasons.
“Everything is possible,” Acuña said. “That (40-40) was never the goal, but now that it’s within sight, obviously it would be nice. But with the season sort of being at the end, the numbers being where they are, it feels like it’s getting tight, we’re running out of time. But the most important thing, the main objective, has been to stay healthy.”
Fried said, “I’ve been playing with Ronald since 2016, and I feel like at this point, nothing really surprises me anymore. He’s that talented, he’s that good. You know he’s always been capable of doing it, but to actually see him have the season that he’s having so far, and also come as close as he is to that accomplishment, it doesn’t surprise me, but it’s also extremely impressive. He can get as hot as anyone, so six more homers is not out of the question.”
The Braves have already set a franchise record with 270 home runs, and the Dodgers (217) are the only other MLB team with more than 202. Atlanta is on pace for 314 homers, seven more homers than the Minnesota Twins’ 2019 MLB record.
Olson is on pace for 54, three more than the record by Andruw Jones, the 10-time Gold Glove center fielder who is to have his Braves number retired in a pregame ceremony Friday night.
“We knew coming in the high-quality person he is,” Snitker said of Olson, whom the Braves acquired from the Oakland Athletics at the beginning of 2022 spring training, after balking at their longtime first baseman Freddie Freeman’s free-agent asking price. “As we said, if we were going to lose Freddie, that was the perfect guy. You couldn’t go out and make a trade for anybody else that’s going to be better than what he brings, the total package.
“Now, spending almost two years with him, it’s everything I thought it would be. The guy’s just off the charts. Great teammate, intangibles, work ethic, the whole thing.”
Riley and Acuña are tied for sixth in the NL with 34 homers apiece, with Marcell Ozuna (33) giving the Braves half of the league’s top eight homer totals. Olson has homered in four consecutive games after going 18 games without one.
“There’s definitely no break” in Atlanta’s lineup, Goldschmidt said, referring to the depth of Atlanta’s offense, which features 10 hitters with at least 11 homers, seven with at least 20, and four with 30 or more. That will be an MLB record-tying five with at least 30 homers if Albies hits one more.
“It’s incredible,” Acuña said. “The thing I like the most is obviously the chemistry, the dynamic that we have as a team. Hopefully we can keep going, break the records and stay healthy.”
Acuńa also leads the majors in runs (125), hits (187) and total bases (327) and is batting .331 with a .990 OPS that trails only Mookie Betts (1.020) among NL hitters. Acuña is widely regarded as the leading candidate to follow Goldschmidt as the next NL MVP, though Betts also put himself in strong contention with a career-best month in August.
“You see the work that he puts in every day,” Fried said of Acuña. “He doesn’t take an at-bat off. And I think that, just day in and day out being able to take the field and do what he does and impact the game the way he does, has been the most impressive thing to me.”
(Top photo of Ronald Acuña Jr.: Todd Kirkland / MLB Photos via Getty Images)