Ronald Acuña Jr., Shane Bieber and the Surging Red Sox: Around the Diamond in MLB’s Third Week

Sox slugger J.D. Martinez leads the majors with 20 RBIs to go along with six homers

April 20, 2021 8:11 am
Ronald Acuna Jr. of the Atlanta Braves
Ronald Acuna Jr. of the Atlanta Braves reacts after hitting a two-run home run.
Todd Kirkland/Getty

Winners of seven of their last 10 following an 11-4 win over the White Sox on Patriots’ Day that saw Chicago ace Lucas Giolito chased from the game before the second inning was in the books, the Boston Red Sox sit atop the AL East at 11-6.

With the club’s 0-3 start now a distant memory, the BoSox boast the best run differential in the AL at +28 and seem to have righted the ship under re-hired manager Alex Cora following back-to-back disasters in 2019 and 2020.

Though the production at the plate from J.D. Martinez, who leads the majors with 20 RBIs and is second in home runs with six behind only Ronald Acuna Jr. of the Atlanta Braves (more on him later), is probably the biggest reason for Boston’s early success, the performance from the Red Sox pitching staff, particularly the bullpen, should not be overlooked.

Entering Monday’s game against Chicago, the Red Sox were 10-0 when holding a lead at any point in the game and their bullpen ranked sixth in MLB with a 3.03 ERA. Those numbers only improved after Garrett Whitlock, who Boston plucked from the Yankees during the offseason via the Rule 5 Draft, relieved starter Nathan Eovaldi (3-1) after he surrendered his fourth run and pitched 2.2 innings of no-hit ball. Projected to eventually be a starter, Whitlock has been nearly unhittable this season dating back to spring training and appears to be the best find of second-year GM Chaim Bloom‘s Boston tenure.

Whitlock’s play for the Red Sox, who welcome the Blue Jays to Boston on Tuesday for a quick two-game series at Fenway Park, is just one of the stories to emerge in the third week of the MLB season. Five other hardball storylines you should be aware of …

Jay Bruce Hangs Up His Cleats

Just days after his 34th birthday, outfielder Jay Bruce decided he couldn’t hack it in the majors after making the New York Yankees’ opening-day roster and announced his retirement from MLB.

A three-time All-Star who spent 14 seasons in the big leagues, Bruce spent time with Cincinnati (2008-16), the New York Mets (2016-18), Cleveland (2017), Seattle (2019), Philadelphia (2019-20) and the Yankees.

A career .244 hitter who compiled 319 homers and 951 RBIs over the course of his career, Bruce was hitting .118 with one homer and three RBIs through 39 plate appearances this year. 

“I was so lucky to have set a standard for myself throughout my career that was frankly very good most of the time,” he said. “And I don’t feel that I’m able to do that, and I think that was the determining factor and in the decision. And I feel good about that decision and I feel thankful honestly to myself that I could be honest enough with myself to to understand that it’s time for this chapter to close.”

Bruce was dead serious about holding himself to a high standard, as retiring instead of playing out the season at a sub-par level will cost him $1,219,355 in salary for the remainder of the year.

The Twins Have Gone Viral

Picked by many to win the AL Central over the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians, the Minnesota Twins have had a horrendous stretch the past few weeks and are now 6-8 after losing seven of their last 10 games.

Minnesota, which had its games on Saturday and Sunday against the Angles postponed due to COVID-19 protocols, was hoping to get back on the winning track on Monday against the A’s but had the series opener moved to Tuesday over more coronavirus concerns.

With the team having at least four positive tests in the past week, the scheduled doubleheader in Oakland on Tuesday should be considered tentative at best as testing has shown that the organization is dealing with a variant strain of COVID-19, Twins president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said during a radio appearance.

“It does create a little bit more uncertainty about going forward and how long it takes for someone who may have been infected to turn positive,” he said. “So there’s a lot of things we’re working with our medical staff to determine.” 

After having 45 regular-season games postponed for virus-related reasons last year, MLB has already had to reschedule six games this season because of the coronavirus, even though there’s now a vaccine that all of the league’s players have easy access to whenever they want.

The Braves Can’t Afford to Lose the Hottest Player in Baseball

Riding a nine-game hitting streak, Ronald Acuña Jr. went 0-2 on Sunday Night Baseball for the Braves before exiting Atlanta’s 13-4 beatdown of the Chicago Cubs after experiencing pain in his lower abdominal muscles.

Though he is being listed as day-to-day, Acuña missing any time at all will be a big blow to the Braves, as they are currently scuffling at just 7-9 in the ultra-competitive NL East. Batting .433 with seven homers and 16 RBIs heading into the series finale against the Cubs, the 23-year-old outfielder also had scored a major league-high 20 runs coming into Sunday night’s game.

One of MLB’s speediest players with three steals on the young season, Acuña may have to alter his aggressiveness on the basepath, as it appeared he injured himself diving back to the bag at first base after taking a big lead.

Already missing outfielders Cristian Pache and Ender Inciarte, the Braves may be forced to use a platoon of Austin Riley and Guillermo Heredia in right field if Acuna does miss time. Atlanta’s next game comes Tuesday in the Bronx against the Yankees.

Shane Bieber Is on Another Planet

Entering Sunday’s game with a 1-1 record on the season, Shane Bieber struck out 13 Reds hitters in eight innings while allowing three runs on six hits to earn his second victory of the season.

While earning his second consecutive win, the reigning AL Cy Young winner became the first pitcher in MLB history to strike out at least 10 batters in each of his first four starts of the season. Bieber’s 48 strikeouts this year also match Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan for the most through the first four starts of a season and the 25-year-old has now whiffed at least eight batters in 16 straight starts, one short of Randy Johnson‘s major league mark.

“That’s why you call guys aces. And he certainly has lived up to that,” said Indians manager Terry Francona. “He’s really accountable for what he needs to do.”

Now carrying a 2.45 ERA and 0.92 WHIP in 29.1 innings this year, Bieber will attempt to remain in the win column at home against the Yankees on Saturday.

Joey Gallo Knows How to Get to First Base

Though he had only hit safely in eight of them, Joey Gallo of the Texas Rangers had reached base in each of his first 15 games this season entering Monday night’s game at the Los Angeles Angels.

With 40 taters in each of his first two full big league seasons (2017-18), Gallo reached 100 career homers quicker than any player in AL history, but has just one this season to go along with 10 singles. It was a bomb …

Though Gallo isn’t hitting for power or average (.239 this season), his 24.6% walk rate has helped lead to a .453 OBP, seventh in the majors as of Monday. Gallo may not be hitting, but his 15 walks are leading the league, and only San Diego’s Manny Machado and Toronto’s Vladimir Guerrero Jr. have longer active on-base streaks at 16 games apiece.

“If he’s still able to get on base at almost a 50% clip, that speaks volumes of what this guy is as a hitter right now,” Rangers manager Chris Woodward said. “He’s not even hitting homers and they’re still walking him.”

(Note: All statistics, standings and streaks are current as of the afternoon of 4/19/2021.)

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