ATLANTA (AP) — Ronald Acuna Jr. is good for baseball.
Jose Urena and his defenders are not.
Jose, take the rest of the season off.
And while you're at it, take Keith Hernandez with you.
In a nod to the bad ol' days when it was apparently acceptable to plunk a guy who was playing too well, Urena unleashed a 97 mph fastball to Acuna's left forearm with his very first pitch of Wednesday night's game in Atlanta .
Fortunately, it appears Acuna escaped serious injury. The Braves said X-rays on his elbow were negative and results of further tests would be announced on Thursday.
Nevertheless, Major League Baseball should act swiftly to show that this sort of barbarism will not be tolerated in the national pastime.
Urena deserves to be suspended for the rest of the season.
Urena apparently thought it was perfectly acceptable to assault — hey, let's call it what it was — one of the game's shining young stars, a 20-year-old who plays the game with pure joy and great skill for the first-place Braves.
Going deep four times in the previous three games against the woeful Miami Marlins (and homering in five straight games overall), a remarkable run that included one of baseball's rarest feats — a pair of leadoff homers in Monday's doubleheader sweep by Atlanta.
Acuna started Tuesday's game with his third straight leadoff homer.
Urena made sure the streak didn't reach four before the Marlins left town.
"This young man is just playing the game, doing what he loves to do," said Brian Snitker, the Braves' manager. "It's a damn shame."
Urena was ejected. So was Snitker for leading his team onto the field to confront the Miami pitcher.
After the game, won by the Braves 5-2 to complete a four-game sweep, the manager was still fuming.
"It's beyond ... I don't know," Snitker said, struggling to find words in the non-profanity category. "I've had three hours to calm down and all of a sudden I'm not real good right now."
Snitker's counterpart, Miami manager Don Mattingly, hardly came to his pitcher's defense .
"This kid's swinging the bat good. We've got to figure out how to get him out," Mattingly said. "That's what we said to Jose. I don't want to see this kid get hit. He's a great player. He's going to be great for a long time. He's beat us up. But this is not the way we want to handle that situation."
He wasn't the least bit surprised that Snitker and his players came storming out of the dugout.
"I understand," Mattingly said. "If we were on the other side and our guy was hitting homers all over the place and that happens, you're going to be fired up."
Laughably, and with a completely straight face, Urena tried to make himself out as the real victim in all this .
"It seems like people get upset and things like that," he said. "But I get upset, too. I've got to wait five days to just go out there, make one pitch and get kicked out of the game? That don't make sense."
Actually, it makes perfect sense.
Now, baseball must take it to the next level.
Instead of a typical suspension that might cost Urena a start or two, the lords of discipline at MLB need to really bring the hammer down. Send a message, once and for all, that this sort of Neanderthal-like behavior will no longer be tolerated.
Even if the players' union appeals, even if it succeeds in overturning a rest-of-the-season ban, baseball would be sending a much-needed message and, hopefully, sparking a long-overdue dialogue to stamp out this sort of brutality.
It won't be easy.
Hernandez, a former All-Star first baseman and NL MVP who now works as a New York Mets broadcaster, quickly threw his support to Urena based on that ridiculous code of ethics passed down through the ages , the one that supposedly allows a pitcher to take the law into his own hands when a guy keeps hitting the ball into the seats.
"You've lost three games. He's hit three homers. You've got to hit him," Hernandez said during the Mets-Orioles game, sounding like someone who needs to be led gently into a pasture and left there. "I'm sorry. People are not going to like that, but you've got to hit him. Knock him down (at least). I mean, seriously knock him down if you don't hit him."
Then, stressing there's a proper way to carry out this painful but necessary justice, Hernandez offered a caveat.
"Never throw at anybody's head," he said, delivering a spot-on impression of that crazy uncle going on some nonsensical rant around the Thanksgiving table while everyone else stares at their food in uncomfortable silence. "Never throw at anybody's head or neck. Hit him in the back. Hit him in the fanny."
Here's the thing:
Maybe that's what Urena was trying to do — hit Acuna in the back or fanny, as was so eloquently stated in The World According To Keith. But sometimes, a guy throwing a baseball almost 100 mph doesn't put it exactly where he wants. Or maybe the batter reacts in a way that the pitcher wasn't expecting, ducking into a pitch instead of leaping away. All of which points to the ludicrousness of anyone, even someone such as Hernandez who spent 17 years in the big leagues, trying to brush this off as just part of the game.
Urena claimed he was merely trying to work inside against Acuna, apparently relying on the fact that he's hit 11 batters overall this season, tied for the most in the National League.
"I try to get something inside and move his feet," the right-hander insisted. "Then we can go back outside, because he's been hot."
Once MLB dismisses that ludicrous defense — Urena's defiant reaction on the mound hardly indicated that the pitch got away and he was really, really sorry about it — there's another issue to consider.
Baseball isn't exactly flourishing at the moment, especially with young people.
A thrilling player such as Acuna could help to reverse that trend, but not if he has to step to the plate after every homer wondering if he's going to get plunked again. Not if he's laid up with a broken arm. Not if he's driven from the game by a fractured skull.
Acuna is the future of baseball.
Urena and Hernandez are best left in the past.
Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul%20newberry
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