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Starting Nine: Is this the spark? Orlando Arcia walks it off, Charlie Morton’s hat tips and a historic draft class

Plus, Travis d’Arnaud’s controlling the base paths, Ronald Acuña Jr.’s streaking (again) and the anniversary of the Bees extermination 

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Atlanta Braves
Orlando Arcia hit his first walk-off home run, and the second of his career from the eighth inning-on, to give the Braves a 5-3 win over the Red Sox on Wednesday night.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

You wanted a spark?

“You never know when you’re going to look back on a game or a big win and know that is the one that got you going,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said.

It may have come Wednesday night from an unlikely source. Orlando Arcia — who had never hit a walk-off in his career and had just once had a home run past the eighth inning that put his team ahead — had one at-bat since April 24.

With Ronald Acuña Jr. out of the lineup, Snitker could have gone with Marcell Ozuna at designated hitter or inserted William Contreras. Instead, he kept Ozuna in left field and went with Arcia, who proceeded to cap his night by sending a rocket into left field to give the Braves a 5-3 win over the Red Sox.

“I’m going to sleep like a baby tonight,” Arcia said through an interpreter.

It was a shot of energy, though the setup of Acuña being out as a precaution did raise some eyebrows. The one positive there (as well get into again later) is that it isn’t his reconstructed knee bothering him.

Six games back in the National League East going into Thursday’s off day and still searching for their first three-game winning streak of the season, the Braves keep showing signs of putting it all together but just haven’t done so for an extended stretch.

Maybe, just maybe, this was the moment that leads to that run.

“I think so, but I would also argue that any type of victory is motivating for any team,” Arcia said. “As long as we can get on a roll and start winning, I think that’ll be the biggest motivating factor.”

As the Braves ready for a three-game series with the Padres beginning Friday night, Starting Nine offers for your off-day reading pleasure, hat tips from Charlie Morton, a draft class unlike any other in franchise history and more.

1. Charlie Morton’s hat tips

Charlie Morton’s resume includes two All-Star seasons, a top-three Cy Young finish and three World Series appearances with three different teams. But as Sporting News’ Jason Foster pointed out on Twitter, one of the 15-year veteran’s biggest accomplishments may be in his ability to make the New Era 59FIFTY — MLB’s official on-field hat — fit so perfectly.

A cap aficionados know that particular model is a fickle beast. So how does Morton pull it off?

“Sweat and care,” he said.

First comes his canvas. Morton is in between a 7 1/4 and 7 3/8, and liking a tighter fit, he opts for the smaller size and has the clubhouse attendants keep it on a hat stretcher overnight. As he noted, from hat to hat, there’s not always a consistency, even if the measurements are identical — “They’re not all the same,” he said — so the attendants will bring him two or three to find the right one.

From there, he gets to work on the curve. Morton starts in the middle and works his way out, breaking up the cardboard in between his fingers. He walks that fine line between a nice U-shape and a crease. If it bends too much, he starts over, and has gone through more than a few in making that mistake.

Morton noted he doesn’t make any manipulation to the netting inside the crown, instead letting sweat over time do that for him to conform it to the shape of his head. “I sweat a lot,” Morton noted.

He has a hat as a keepsake from each year of his career, and the benefit of five straight postseason appearances have made them passports of sorts. While many players opt for a new cap come the postseason, when the side is adorned with a round-specific sticker, Morton instead asks the clubhouse attendants to place the sticker on the broken in one he’s been wearing. As the rounds change, he continues the process, the residue from the past rounds’ stickers visible around the edges of the current one.

“By the end of the season, you look at it, and (think) that’s a Major League hat,” Morton said.

There’s always the wrinkle of when he has to wear an alternate hat, like this past Sunday for Mother’s Day when the Braves wore a gray hat with a pick A. But the clubhouse attendants, knowing how particular the veteran is, will get him a few versions days in advance to let Morton get to work.

2. A draft class unlike any other

The Braves have had plenty of successes when it comes to drafting starting pitchers, with Tom Glavine (1984), Steve Avery (1988), Kevin Millwood (1993), Adam Wainwright (2000), Charlie Morton (2002) and Alex Wood (2012) among them. But in terms of depth, the 2016 class now stands alone.

Joey Wentz made his debut for the Tigers on Wednesday, making him the fifth pitcher in the Braves’ 2016 draft to start a game at the MLB level. Wentz, who was taken in the first round (40th overall), joins Ian Anderson, Tucker Davidson, Kyle Muller, and Bryse Wilson in that regard.

Since the start of the draft in 1965, the Braves have never had five pitchers who were drafted and signed with the organization to accomplish that feat.

Anderson noted this week that he keeps in contact with Wentz, and that the two still have a group what with Davidson and Muller. He was remiss that he couldn’t watch Wentz’s debut, with the right-hander lasting just 2 2/3 innings vs. the A’s, getting tagged for six runs on seven hits. he struck out one with two walks over his 73 pitches. Anderson, after all, was preoccupied, facing the Red Sox in a start in which he allowed three runs on seven hits with four strikeouts and a walk over 5 1/3 innings.

3. While we await word on Acuña’s groin, let’s appreciate this streak

Alarms no doubt sounded across Braves Country with word of Ronald Acuña Jr. missing Wednesday’s game against the Red Sox with a sore groin, especially with his having caught fire of late in his first action in 10 months.

Per Brian Snitker, the Braves are hoping it’s not a lingering issue, and with an off-day Thursday, the outfielder should be back on Friday without needing a stint on the injured list.

“We’ll treat him up for a couple days and check him out Friday when he comes in and see where we’re at,” Snitker said. “He’s had a lot of activity. He’s been busy on the bases, stealing bases, running around the outfield. It’s maintenance more than anything to make sure it doesn’t become something (more serious).”

The biggest positive here is that it’s not his knee that’s an issue, with Acuña having torn his right ACL back in July. But while everyone holds their collective breath as the Braves wait to reevaluate him on Friday, can we take a second to appreciate the streak Acuña’s in the midst of?

He’s now reached base in 24 straight games dating back to last season, behind only Boston’s J.D. Martinez (29) for the longest active streak. Acuña’s posted a .928 OPS with six home runs, five doubles and seven steals in that stretch. It’s the fourth time since in his career that Acuña has had a streak of 24 straight games on base or longer, including a 26-gamer last season and a 32-game on-base run in 2019.

Since Acuña’s debut in 2018, the only players with more on-base streaks of 24 or more games are the Astros’ Alex Bregman with five and the Brewers’ Christian Yelich with four.

4. Travis d’Arnaud, traffic cop

Travis d’Arnaud had more than a few issues controlling traffic on the base paths last season, tossing out five runners in 73 games, including the postseason. It became a bigger issue once the playoffs arrived, with teams a perfect 18-for-18 on steals attempts, with the veteran coming off a thumb injury that cost him 67 games.

Like his play at the plate, where d’Arnaud is hitting 35 percent above league average after hitting 22 percent below in 2021, he’s rebounded in a big way. Through 22 games, the 33-year-old has thrown out seven runners — including walking things off as part of the strike ‘em out/throw ‘em out double play to end Saturday’s win over the Brewers — giving him one more than he had last season.

His 35 percent caught stealing rate (7-of-20) is the best of d’Arnaud’s career just the second time since then that he’s been above the league average, which is 27 percent this year.

5. Opportunity knocks for Contreras

Speaking of the catcher position, he acquisition of Manny Piña — who had inked two-year deal, $8 million deal in November — and pairing him with d’Arnaud painted the picture of a lack of faith in the Braves’ young catchers making an immediate impact. There was cause, with William Contreras underwhelming offensively in 52 games last season while d’Arnaud was out, and Shea Langeliers had played a mere five games at Triple-A.

Atlanta seemed set behind the plate, so much so that Langeliers was dealt, and there was talk of Contreras working into the mix in the outfield. With Manny Piña out since April 24, Contreras was getting another look at catcher, and now it’s going to be a longer look that anticipated.

Brian Snitker announced Wednesday that Piña will undergo wrist surgery, ending his season, pushing Contreras into the role of d’Arnaud’s primary backup.

“William’s going to get a chance to play a pretty good amount,” Snitker said.

That leaves the only MLB experience in the system at catcher as d’Arnaud, Contreras and Chadwick Tromp, who is at Triple-A and has 33 games under his belt with the Giants in 2020 and 2021.

Contreras, who is hitting .250/.368/.813 with three home runs in 19 plate appearances, has the most HRs of any player with 20 or fewer PAs. He’s done well with consistent at-bats, including a 133 wRC+ in 44 games in Gwinnett last season. It will take some creativity, but in sharing time with d’Arnaud, the outfield and DH, it would seem key that the Braves find out what they have in Contreras with Piña out.

6. Ozuna gets a new vantage point as a Brave

When he was in the lineup, Marcell Ozuna struggled last season to recapture the mojo that made him 2020’s National League leader in home runs and RBI, and it’s gotten worse. All of his expected stats save slugging are down year over year, his swing rate is up, he’s seeing fewer pitches in the zone, and because of that, his percentage of swings on pitches outside the strike zone (34.4) is at a career high.

With Acuña out of the lineup Wednesday, the shuffling of the batting order included moving Ozuna down to fifth, the second time he’s hit outside of fourth since this season and the lowest he’s hit in the Braves order since arriving in 2020. It didn’t help, as Ozuna went 0-for-4 and has two hits in his last 37 plate appearances.

It was the first time Ozuna had hit fifth since 2018, when he was with the Cardinals, and given his struggles, pushing him further down in the order may be the right play.

In his career he’s had 478 plate appearances at sixth and posted a .870 OPS, his best of any spot outside of third where he’s had more than 16 PAs.

For those hoping the struggling slugger gets a break, enjoy the thought that he’s one of only 19 players to appear in all 32 games this season and only the Mariners’ Jesse Winker (.588) has a lower OPS than Ozuna’s .585.

7. Matt Olson, on the double

Sitting on a 1.187 OPS through 13 games, Matt Olson has slowed down to the tune of a .599 OPS since, but what hasn’t changed is that the man is still producing doubles at a ridiculous pace.

He hit his 14th in the third inning Wednesday vs. the Red Sox, his second in as many days and fourth this month.

That ties Olson for the fourth-most through 32 games in franchise history, equaling five other players — most Freddie Freeman in 2015 — and currently has him on pace for 68 on the season.

That rate may not continue for the first baseman, who has never had more than 35 in a season, though it would be a single-season record, beating Earl Webb’s 67 in 1931 for the Red Sox, and in the last 22 years, no one has had more than Todd Helton’s 59 in 2000.

The most by any Braves player is Hugh Duffy with 51 in 1894, while Marcus Giles’ 49 in 2003 stands as the tops in the Atlanta era.

While we’re on the topic of franchise history ...

8. Vanishing of the Bees

On this day in 1941, the Bees were exterminated.

When Emil Fuchs forfeited his majority stock in the Braves in 1935 — after a series of missteps that included trying to turn Braves Field into a dog track and have the team play at Fenway Park and bringing in a well over-the-hill Babe Ruth in 1935 — and the new ownership was looking to change the team’s fortune.

They started so by renaming the team, asking fans to submit suggestions. They received 1,327, going with the submission of Arthur J. Rockwood of East Weymouth, Mass., who wrote “As a new name for your club, I submit ‘The Boston Bees.’ The ‘B’ is significant of many things, Boston, beans, baseball, etc., and not too hard to learn, being similar to ‘Braves.’ And if your club develops the bees’ characteristics, you should have honey this Fall.”

There would be nothing sweet about the Bees’ existence, as they finished no better than sixth in the NL going into the 1941 season.

Two weeks into that season, a group — which included HOF manager Casey Stengel — took majority control and voted to change the name back. It took effect on May 12, and a day later, Boston played as the Braves a day later vs. the Cubs.

9. Happy birthday, Felipe Alou

It’s Felipe Alou’s birthday, with the first Dominican to play regularly in the majors turning 86. You may remember him best as the manager of the Expos and Giants, or the father of Moises and Luis, but the playing career was legit, and it got no better than what he accomplished in a Braves uniform.

His 6.2 fWAR in 1968 ranks seventh among Braves center fielders in the Expansion Era, trailing only five years by Andruw Jones and Dale Murphy’s second MVP season (1983) and in manning left field primarily in 1966, Alou accumulated a 6.1 fWAR that stands as third beset by any player in the franchise to man the position in the last 56 years.

Alou spent six years with the franchise — playing 1964 and ‘65 in Milwaukee before the move to Georgia — earning two All-Star nods, two top-10 MVP finishes and a top-10 fWAR (14.2) among all Braves outfielders.

The oldest of two brothers to play in the majors and the son of Moises and Luis, he’s the

Pay homage to the guy who got it started for Dominican baseball’s First Family.