Stealing the show: Acuña leads speedsters seeking October impact in pitch clock era

ATLANTA – The image of Ronald Acuña Jr. stealing second base and then holding the bag above his head in triumphant glory is a signature moment from the Atlanta Braves’ season.

The steal did more than make Acuña the game’s charter member of the 40-70 club. It also set him up to score the go-ahead run in a 6-5 win over the Chicago Cubs on Sept. 27.

The game of baseball has changed, and players with game-changing speed are taking advantage.

Fans only now turning their attention to baseball for the postseason will find a different game. Players are running much more than a year ago thanks to new rules that also promise to have an impact on the playoffs. There were 3,503 stolen bases in the regular season, a dramatic jump of more than 1,000 from a year ago. It’s the highest total since 1987’s record of 3,585.

Expect the rampant running to continue in the playoffs.

“Guys are going to be turning it loose like they have all year,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker. “Teams like Arizona are going to be flying all over the place. I don’t really see a change from the season.”

Minnesota Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said before Tuesday’s AL Wild Card Series opener against Toronto that the speed potential of backup outfielder Andrew Stevenson was a big factor in Stevenson earning one of the last roster spots for the series.

“I think speed and defense is always something to think about in a postseason scenario,” Baldelli said.

“You start getting in these close ball games in the eighth or ninth inning, you need a run. Your leadoff guy on, putting something like that in the game creates a lot of issues for the other team. We know it because we experience it on that side of the ball, too. Everyone sees it. Everyone feels it and knows that there’s a lot of ways to score when you have an elite baserunner out there.”

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The new rules accentuate the speed factor.

MLB introduced bigger bases, a pitch timer and, most notably, a rule limiting pitchers to just two disengagements — like a pickoff throw — from the rubber per plate appearance. The bigger bags slightly reduced the distance between bases, but that distance shrinks more with baserunners feeling empowered to take bigger leads.

Acuña led the majors with 73 stolen bases while hitting 41 homers. The Braves stole 132 bases, a big jump from their 87 in 2022, and still ranked only 10th in the majors. Cincinnati was first with 190, followed by Arizona (166), Kansas City (163) and Tampa Bay (160). The Diamondbacks and Rays are competing in the wild-card round, while the NL East champion Braves earned a buy to the NL Division Series.

It’s a dramatic change from 2022, when the Texas Rangers led the majors with 128 steals, a total that would have ranked only 12th this season. The Rangers stole two bases in their 4-0 win over the Rays in their Wild Card Series opener Tuesday.

Acuña, a leading NL MVP candidate along with the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts, supplies speed and power as the face of the game’s new look.

“I can’t wait until we get that thing going to see what he can do,” Snitker said of Acuña on the postseason stage. “Great ones, they have that penchant to love that spotlight and he’s one of the great ones. … The one place that kid is not going to feel pressure is between those lines. He’s in his world there.”

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Acuña and the Braves, who led the majors with 104 wins, will play the winner of the Philadelphia-Miami NL Wild Card Series.

Braves reliever A.J. Minter says pitchers adjusted to the new rules relatively quickly. Even so, he’s wary of a postseason game being decided by a rule that wasn’t part of the game a year ago.

“I would hate for a crucial Game 5, Game 7 in the postseason to come down to a pitch-clock violation,” Minter said. “Hopefully the umpires will have a little bit of feel on that. But at the same time we want them to be consistent with it. Hopefully we’re not in that scenario where that does happen.”

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