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Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2018 — No. 5: Two young guns make a splash in the NL East

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We’re a few short days away from 2019 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2018. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

Heading into the 2018 season there was probably no player whose major league debut was more anticipated than Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña. At only 20 years-old he was poised to be one of the younger players to make a serious impact on a pennant race in some time. And, while his debut was a tad delayed thanks to the Braves manipulating his service time in the early weeks of the season, he delivered what he promised once he made the bigs.

Thing was, he was only one of two young outfielders to make a big impact in the NL East in 2018. And he wasn’t even the youngest. That honor went to Juan Soto — a mere 19 years-old all season long — who matched Acuña all year long.

These days we’re somewhat used to teams favoring young players over older players, but to have two guys emerge as stars at such young ages is insanely rare in baseball history. Indeed, there have been just five seasons in all of baseball history in which two players under the age of 21 put up campaigns with offensive WAR of 3.0 or more:

1911 – Rogers Hornsby, Whitey Witt;
1928 – Mel Ott, Jimmie Foxx;
1952 – Mickey Mantle, Eddie Mathews;
2012 – Bryce Harper, Mike Trout; and
2018 – Ronald Acuña, Juan Soto

I’d say that’s some good company.

Maybe even better company than you might realize. It’s rare as all get-out to have two under-21 players putting up seasons like this in one year, but having even one season like that is, more often than not, a harbinger of great things. As Grant Brisbee noted over at SB Nation last month, any given player who puts up a season with an offensive WAR of 3.0 or greater under the age of 21 is more likely than not to make the Hall of Fame. Thirty-three guys have done it. Nineteen of them are in the Hall of Fame and another six of them are still active, including Acuña and Soto.

As it was, Acuña hit .293/.366/.552 with 26 home runs, 64 RBI, 78 runs scored, and 16 stolen bases in 487 plate appearances and was an above-average defender according to the various defensive metrics. Soto hit .292/.406/.517 with 22 homers and 70 RBI in 494 plate appearances. Thanks to the defense and the base running, Acuña beat Soto in the Rookie of the Year voting, gaining 27 of the 30 first place votes, but it’s clear that the two of them are close to equal talents, especially given that Soto is a year younger.

The Nats had a down year in 2018, but with Soto in the fold, they are likely to bounce back at some point soon while Acuña and the Braves seem poised to contend for the foreseeable future. Seeing the two of these guys go head to head in 2018 was itself fantastic. Seeing them do it over the coming years will be a treat indeed.

Baseball returns: Mariners beat the Athletics in the first official game of the season

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I wake up super early almost every morning. Today was no exception. Unlike most days, however, I had more to look at than my cats and more to do than wait for the sunrise: there was baseball — baseball that counted — on my TV. The Mariners took on the A’s in the Tokyo Dome at 5:30AM — which was 6:30PM, Japan time — in the first official regular season game of the year.

As far as games go it was light on the pitching and, a few dingers aside, was light on excitement, with the Mariners beating the A’s 9-7. But hey, less-than-exciting baseball is better than most things, right?

Oakland jumped out to an early lead thanks to a two-out first inning homer by Stephen Piscotty off of M’s starter Marco Gonzalez. The A’s added a second run in the second thanks to a Chad Pinder single, a throwing error which advanced him to third and a Marcus Semien RBI single.

The top of the third provided some chills: Ichiro, batting ninth for Seattle, came to bat with no one out and a runner on first, facing A’s starter Mike Fiers. Flashbulbs popped and the Tokyo Dome crowd chanted his name. He popped out to the second baseman who caught it in shallow right, sadly, but still got an ovation as he walked to the dugout. One of the more exciting and emotional F4s you’ll see.

At that point the pitching took a powder. Dee Gordon would single in Tim Beckham later that inning to make the game 2-1, the M’s would load the bases and Domingo Santana would hit one out to the opposite field for a grand slam to make it 5-2. In the bottom of the third Khris Davis came up and hit a two-run blast to make it 5-4. They say the pitchers are ahead of the hitters early in the year but, uh, nah. By the way, it was the third straight Opening Day on which Davis has homered. The record is four. Mark your calendars for next year.

Ichiro came up again in the top of the fourth, again with a runner on first, this time facing Liam Hendriks instead of Fiers. He worked a 3-1 count, fouled one off to bring the count full, fouled one off his ankle, which looked like it hurt, fouled one that bounced off his back or arm or something which also looked like it hurt, and then took one in the dirt to draw the walk. Again, a bigger cheer than you get for most walks. Later in the inning Mitch Haniger hit a sac fly to make it 6-4.

The Mariners took the field for the bottom of the fourth. Before the inning began, M’s manager Scott Servais signaled to Ichiro in right, who came running back to the dugout. He was being taken out of the game, replaced by Jay Bruce, who moved out from first base, in such a way as to allow his teammates to give him hugs and to allow the Tokyo crowd to give Ichiro a standing ovation. A nice move from Servais. An 0-for-1, 1BB night on what may very well be the future Hall of Famer’s penultimate game.

Things sort of got out of hand after that. The M’s added three runs in the fifth, two of which came on a Beckham homer. It gave us our first bat flip of the season:

At that point my kids left for school and my wife left for work and the game sort of blended into the background of the morning. Matt Chapman hit a three-run bomb for the A’s in the 7th to make it 9-7, which is a score more appropriate for the glorified spring training game this truly was than a regular season tilt, but such is life. And that, after a couple of scoreless innings, was the ballgame.

It was a game that, in the grand scheme of things, means nothing beyond the stats it created and the smallest of small impacts it will have on season standings that will almost certainly not turn on this game. Which is to say it didn’t matter all that much. It was not a big event. It did not change our day nor impact it beyond the moments of enjoyment and amusement it gave us as it unfolded. It did not insist upon itself like so many games in other sports, TV shows and news events which unfold seem so hellbent on doing.

It just happened. As baseball, when it’s at its best, simply does. Welcome back.