LOS ANGELES — Ronald Acuña Jr. has made just about everything else look easy, so why should getting married on the same day as the opening game of the biggest series of the Atlanta Braves’ season be any different?
To the surprise of most teammates and manager Brian Snitker, Acuña married Maria Laborde, his longtime girlfriend and mother of his two young sons, during a Thursday morning ceremony that he said took place in a house at a ranch in the mountains near Los Angeles.
Then Acuña hit a grand slam in the second inning of a riveting 8-7 win against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the opener of a four-game series at Dodger Stadium. It made Acuña the first player in major-league history to have at least 30 homers and 60 stolen bases in a season.
And though Acuña said he’d planned for a few weeks to do the wedding in L.A., he told almost no one outside his immediate family and tight circle of friends.
“No, I didn’t mention anything to anybody, it was something like a surprise,” Acuña said through a translator, adding that he decided to have the wedding on this trip just because he likes the Los Angeles area. “To be honest, I’m not really sure what the name of the location was. Maybe 45 minutes away from the hotel, but it’s something that I’ve had planned out weeks ahead.”
#Braves hang on to win 8-7 in a thrilling series opener at Dodger Stadium. Mookie Betts hit two of L.A.’s four homers, but Ronald Acuña Jr. made history with a grand slam that made him the first major league player to have at least 30 homers and 60 stolen bases in a season. Ever.
— David O’Brien (@DOBrienATL) September 1, 2023
Acuña’s chief competition for NL MVP, Mookie Betts, had two home runs and drove in four for the Dodgers, who trailed 6-1 in the second inning but hit four homers —including three off Braves relievers —to push Atlanta to the wire. But in the end, the Braves and Raisel Iglesias closed out the win, just the fourth for the Braves in the past 16 games they’ve played at Dodger Stadium.
And the biggest day of Acuña’s young life was a resounding success in every way.
“I feel very happy, very special,” Acuña said of becoming the first 30-60 player in history. “I’m very thankful, very privileged. I thank God for the opportunity to play the game that I love every single day. It’s not just about me, it’s about the teammates and the fan base as well, being able to share this moment.”
Did we mention that Acuña did all this — got married in the morning, made history at night — while operating on almost no sleep after the Braves arrived from Denver in the wee hours following a Wednesday night game at Colorado?
“The power of love? I don’t know. I’m going to renew my vows tomorrow,” joked Braves first baseman Matt Olson, who found out Acuña had gotten married after Olson and others arrived at Dodger Stadium.
Snitker didn’t find out until after the game, a few minutes before doing his postgame session with reporters.
“I just heard about that, holy cow,” Snitker said, and laughed. “You know what, I’m better off not knowing most of this stuff, quite honestly. But congratulations to him. It’s nice that he did it. Because I’ve seen him, he’s a really good father.”
So much to be thankful and ecstatic about, and Acuña was.
“Incredible,” he said of wedding bliss. “We have such a beautiful family, with two young boys growing up. I just pray to God that we can stay healthy as we continue to grow as a family.”
So, how was he able to control his emotions after getting married and still play at such a high level in such a big game?
“It’s hard to explain, just because the emotion, the excitement that I felt at the wedding, I left it out of the ballpark,” he said. “And then obviously the emotions that I felt here stay here in the ballpark.”
Dodgers rookie Bobby Miller, who will start Sunday’s finale against the Braves, was talking Thursday afternoon in the home clubhouse about the importance of this four-game series – “I know a lot of us, everyone in here, wants it really bad,” he said – and about the unique challenge of facing Acuña.
“Ronald, he’s always going to be Ronald. He’s always going to be a great player, you know that,” Miller said. “I mean, they’ve got a whole lineup full of studs, but so do we.”
But a few hours later, only one of those players made history, while going a long way — or so it seemed — in deciding the outcome of this highly anticipated series opener between the teams with the best records in baseball.
Acuña hit a grand slam off Lance Lynn with one out in the second for a 5-1 lead.
“It was a pretty good pitch, too,” Olson said. “Top of the zone. I don’t know, you become a little callous to it, watching the amazing stuff that he does. It’s a nightly basis that he’s doing something incredible.”
Austin Riley added a solo homer two batters later to push the lead to 6-1. But it was only the second inning, and Betts would have plenty to say about the outcome of this game, beginning with his three-run homer off Spencer Strider in the fifth inning.
Betts also had a solo homer off Joe Jiménez in the seventh, and the Dodgers got within a run on Max Muncy’s eighth-inning homer off A.J. Minter.
There were seven home runs in the game, including one by the Braves’ Michael Harris II. But none of the long balls carried with it the significance of the one that Acuña delivered.
When Betts was asked about how dynamic Acuña is, he said, “Everybody knows that. Sixty bases, 30 homers, .340 average. Just look at his stats. It’s self-explanatory, as far as how dynamic he is. He changed the game today for sure.”
On his historic grand slam, the fateful pitch was a 2-2 fastball at the top of the strike zone, which came in at 93.7 mph and went out at 110.5 off the bat of the Acuña, who leads the majors by a wide margin in the number of hard-hit balls (95 mph or higher). Acuña had 251 of those before Thursday, more than 30 ahead of the next guy, Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
It’s been quite a week on the road for Acuña, the sensational leadoff man who collected both his 29th home run and his 60th and 61st stolen bases in a game Monday at Colorado, a memorable night when two overzealous fans ran at him in right field during the game in hopes of taking a picture with him, and ended up arrested.
One of those fans got to Acuña and hugged him for a few seconds before security took down the intruder, and the other fan made contact with an off-balance Acuña and knocked him backward on his rear end. Both were charged with trespassing and disturbing the peace. Acuña had four hits in that game — three went for extra bases — and drove in five runs, to go with the homer and two steals. He is the first player in franchise history with that many hits, RBIs and stolen bases in a single game.
But his biggest homer to date came not against the 84-loss Rockies, but the 83-win Dodgers, helping keep L.A. at arm’s length of the Braves, who have a majors-best 88-45 record and a five-game lead off the Dodgers for home-field advantage if they were to meet them in the NLCS. Acuña also got his 62nd stolen base Thursday.
The Braves have not won a regular-season series at Dodger Stadium since taking two of three in a 2012 series, and have not won a four-game series at the ballpark since winning three games in a 2009 series.
“For me, the biggest thing is the speakers are so loud here,” Riley said of Dodgers Stadium. “Super loud. That’s the biggest thing that I’ve noticed about this place.”
Atlanta got home-field advantage in the 2021 NLCS despite having 88 wins to the Dodgers’ 106 during the regular season, by virtue of the Dodgers being a wild-card team — San Francisco won 107 and the West Division — and the Braves being the East champion. Atlanta capitalized by winning the first two games of that NLCS at Truist Park on the way to eliminating the Dodgers.
The Braves and Dodgers entered Friday with baseball’s best records in 2023 and by far its largest division leads, with Atlanta now 14 games ahead of the Phillies in the NL East and the Dodgers leading the West by 13 1/2 games. The next-largest lead is Minnesota’s five-game advantage in the AL Central.
The Braves and Dodgers also came in with the best home records in the majors. The Braves are 44-22 at Truist Park, and the Dodgers are 46-22 at Dodger Stadium after Thursday’s loss, which was just their second in the past 15 home games.
The Dodgers’ concert-level speaker system in center field is part of the challenging atmosphere. Music and sound effects blare from those towering speakers. When combined with the relatively mammoth size of the ballpark — they built them bigger in decades past — and the boisterous crowds, it can be deafening.
Similarly, the Braves’ enthusiastic, tomahawk-chopping and chanting crowds and packed ballpark can be intimidating.
“Oh, yeah, for sure,” Riley said. “Just think about our fans and what they bring, the energy. There’s nothing like playing in Truist Park, I tell you that. So you just try to come out and play good baseball. See where we’re at the end of the series.”
“If you look at both fan bases, they play a factor,” Minter said. “Playing here (at Dodger Stadium), it gets rowdy. Playing in Atlanta, it gets rowdy. So yeah, it’s critical for both sides. But that being said, no matter how this series goes, there’s still a lot of baseball left. So you can’t put too much emphasis on the series. Yeah, we want to come out here and play good baseball, set the tone. Just don’t make any mistakes, play our game, don’t try to do anything extra, and we’ll see where the chips fall.”
The Dodgers knew coming into this series that it was their best chance to make up ground on the Braves.
“It’s a huge series,” said Miller, who will face Charlie Morton in Sunday’s finale. “It’s the two best teams in baseball right now.”
A similar mindset is prevalent in the Braves’ clubhouse.
“We’re the team to beat. We know that. We know people are hunting us and trying to take us down, so we know we get everyone’s best effort when they play us. That being said, all the pressure’s on them. … No matter where we wind up at the end of the season, we feel confident going about postseason.”
(Photo of Ronald Acuña, Jr: Kirby Lee / USA Today)