The hardest part for Ronald Acuña might have come Saturday night when he dressed in his home Braves uniform and took the field during team introductions before Game 1 of the NLCS. Not necessarily the physical part, although he did slowly ascend the dugout steps at Truist Park, using the handrails for support, before deliberately walking to greet his teammates, who were lined up between first base and home plate.
The crowd roared for him, but Acuña isn't ready to start running because of his surgically repaired right knee; he might begin jogging in November or December, he said. Ideally, he would resume baseball activities in January or February, and return to 2022 regular-season action in April or May.
Acuña, who talked to reporters Sunday before Game 2 with the help of club interpreter Franco García, said in Spanish that he aches to be out there playing — but he will be smart about it.
"I don’t have a date in mind," Acuña said. "It’s a knee; the knee is a big focal point as far as the structure and stability for any athlete. So, I’m going to take my time with it, that’s for sure. But I know once I’m ready to go, I’ll obviously express that.
"Whatever the doctors and the team and the medical staff say."
The Braves, who have taken a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven NLCS, visit the Dodgers to continue the series Tuesday afternoon. Acuña can only lend his support from afar. Unable to play since July 10 because of a torn ACL, Acuña reportedly has kept “a low profile” during injury rehab at Truist Park. He has been in uniform other times, like on team photo day in September, but being at the ballpark when his teammates were about to take the field against the Dodgers reminded Acuña of how far he has to go.
"I’m always proud to wear this Braves uniform, and it was awesome to be announced and everything," Acuña said. "It was tough to be announced and not take the field like the rest of the guys. But in that same breath, I’m glad that I could be here and show them support.
"I would probably have to say this is one of the hardest moments of my career, to be honest. Just to be here at the stadium and not be able to join my teammates out there on the field and play with them. But, (there is) nothing you can do about that. So for me, it’s just about being here continuing to give them the support as if I were playing... and just keep supporting everyone the best way I can."
Keeping a positive mental attitude has been at the core of Acuña's rehab process almost from the moment he was injured playing the outfield against the Miami Marlins.
"I knew after it happened, I immediately looked at our training staff and our medical staff and all the doctors and said, let’s get straight to work on the recovery," said Acuña, who had surgery July 21.
Acuña said he'd call himself perhaps "70 percent" healed — but it's just his personal opinion, just a number. He said he feels "good," but he also feels about as good as he did two months ago.
"It's been a gradual process," Acuña said. Which it will remain until he's healthy.
"As far as the return and where I’m actually at, I’ll leave those decisions up to the trainers and the doctors and the team to make those kind of calls," Acuña said. "We’ll see what they determine."
Acuña said he works out daily at the ballpark and, on days when the Braves play home games, he makes a habit of watching a couple of innings in person before going home to rest up, watching the conclusion of the game on TV. While he's gotten a lot of advice from other athletes who tore their ACL, every journey is a little different.
"As good as all that advice is, you’ve kind of just got to listen to your own body," Acuña said.
If there's a silver lining or bright side to the rehab process, it's discovering another level of fitness he hadn't realized before.
"I’ve been able to focus and put some time and effort and energy into working on certain parts of my body that I haven’t really done before," Acuña said.
Acuña already has been Rookie of the Year, twice an All-Star and an NL MVP candidate since his first season in 2018. The Braves know what they're missing. He was batting .283/.394/.596 with 24 homers and 17 stolen bases in 82 games when he went down. He's already got 105 career homers, even though he turns only 24 a week before Christmas. Most of his career is still in front of him.
But he really misses what the Braves are doing right now.
"We never give up, we never stop playing until the game’s over, and that’s the reason we’re here right now," Acuña said. "These guys keep fighting."
The Braves finished with 88 victories, the lowest among the playoff teams, but they went 44-28 after the All-Star break, remaking their outfield and lineup by adding Joc Pederson, Jorge Soler, Adam Duvall and Eddie Rosario after Acuña and Marcell Ozuna got hurt.
Soler was one of the Braves' better hitters until contracting COVID-19, while Rosario has sparked the team at the plate and on the bases. Pederson has become a fashion-forward folk hero in Braves lore.
Acuña expects more as the playoffs continue.
"They’ve done a great job since coming over," Acuña said. "I think we’ve come to expect that. So it’s going to be one of those things where we’re kind of expecting it from them."