Jarred Kelenic shifts to center field and leadoff, sparks homer barrage in Braves' rout of Rays

ATLANTA — When Braves manager Brian Snitker was asked before Saturday’s game if he put Jarred Kelenic at leadoff because he seemed as good of an option as any on an injury-depleted roster, Snitker replied, “We’re running out of options,” punctuated with a sort of laugh-to-keep-from-crying chuckle.

Regardless of why Kelenic, filling in for injured center fielder Michael Harris II, ended up in the leadoff spot, it worked: He had three hits including the first of Atlanta’s four homers in a 9-2 rout of the Tampa Bay Rays, the third consecutive win for the Braves since a five-game skid that was their longest since September 2017.

In their first game since Harris sustained a Grade 2 strain of his left hamstring Friday and landed on the 15-day injured list, the Braves trailed 1-0 before a two-out, three-homer outburst in a five-run fifth inning, a barrage that began with Kelenic’s two-run homer that provided a 2-1 lead and caused him to pump his fists emphatically as he bounded between first and second bases.

“Yeah, just to get that momentum back, take the lead,” Kelenic said of his emotional reaction. “I feel like we have so many talented guys in here, if we just get a little bit of momentum, the game’s kind of over. So once we took the lead right there, especially with the big dogs coming up behind me — I mean you saw how they capitalized and had a big inning right there. Just a little bit of momentum, I was fired up about it.”

Indeed, after Kelenic’s two-out homer and an Ozzie Albies walk, Marcell Ozuna hit his NL-leading 20th homer and Matt Olson extended a season-high hitting streak to nine games with his 11th homer and eighth in his past 34 games. All three homers came against Ryan Pepiot, after the right-hander allowed just one Brave to advance past first through four innings.

Kelenic has hit .308 in his past 20 games with nine extra-base hits including three homers and a .550 slugging percentage, after hitting .245 and slugging .343 with seven extra-base hits in his first 35 games.

“He’s good, he can hit,” Ozuna said, then smiled. “He sometimes goes a little crazy, but he resets and comes back. He’s going to figure it out and be in the right place. I think he’s gonna be a good piece for us the rest of the season, after we lost (Ronald Acuña Jr.). Hopefully he stays healthy.”

Snitker also referred to the temper and emotions Kelenic has been known for, including during three seasons with the Seattle Mariners, who traded him to the Braves last winter after they became frustrated with his stalled development and Kelenic’s broken foot last summer from kicking a dugout cooler in frustration.

“He’s an intense guy, but he’s very confident in his ability,” Snitker said. “He’s a very determined young man. He’s got a lot of skills. It’s just experience, getting at-bats and situations. I was excited to get him in December, and he’s fit in here great. I think he’s with a great group of guys to allow him to mature and get his game going. Sky’s the limit with a kid like that with his skill set.”

Kelenic, 24, opened the season in a left-field platoon with Adam Duvall and became the everyday left fielder when Duvall shifted to right field to replace Acuña in late May. Now he moves to center and atop the order with Harris out, which will be at least for another two weeks but seems likely to be longer. If Kelenic hits anything like he did Saturday, it’s safe to assume he’ll stay atop the order at least until Harris returns.

“He’s done exactly what we hoped he would do,” Snitker said of Kelenic’s progress this season. “I’ve been more than pleased with his defensive ability. He’s a really good defender. The arm plays, and he can run. He’s done a really, really nice job just hanging in there and allowing himself a chance to get going. Things happen. You’ve got to ask him to do a little more than what you thought, but we’re deep enough into this, so if he’s going to do it he’s probably ready for it now.”

Austin Riley added a three-run homer in the seventh inning, his fifth of the season and second in as many days, as the Braves continued what they hope is a long-awaited resurgence for Riley and the rest of their lineup. It was Atlanta’s first four-homer game since April 19 and Riley’s first back-to-back homer days this season. (Riley homered four days in a row in July 2023 and on consecutive days three other times last season.)

“Austin is a player that gets hot quick,” Ozuna said. “We don’t worry about him. He’s awesome.”

It was the first time the Braves hit more than two homers in a game since May 22 at Wrigley Field, and it’s their longest winning streak since they won four in a row May 7-11. They cut a game off the Phillies’ substantial lead in the NL East standings. The Phillies, who lost at Baltimore Saturday, still are eight games ahead of the Braves.

After Harris felt a twinge in his left hamstring while running the bases in the first inning Friday, the Braves were left to scramble again to come up with a leadoff hitter on a roster that doesn’t feature multiple hitters with good speed and on-base skills.

Kelenic is as close to any at fitting that bill, but Snitker conceded the decision had more to do with Albies.

“It’s more if I lead Ozzie off, I don’t know who to put it in the 2-hole, if you want to know the truth,” Snitker said before Saturday’s game. “So, just got to mix and match and see if we can find something that works. Because it’s going to be a while.”

The Braves had another new lineup wrinkle with veteran Ramón Laureano in right field and batting ninth. After Harris went on the IL, they called Laureano from Triple A, where the seven-year MLB veteran hit .362 with three homers, 12 RBIs and a 1.028 OPS in 14 games since signing a minor-league deal with Atlanta.

Laureano, 29, was waived by the Oakland Athletics midway through his dismal 2022 season, and released by the Cleveland Guardians three weeks ago after struggling mightily with them for 31 games.

But Saturday he was starting in right field for the Braves and had an eighth-inning single and a couple of other hard-hit outs. Laureano said something before the game that provided a glimpse at the mindset that’s allowed him to shrug off failure and rejection and continue believing he can contribute.

“I don’t think too much, I just go with what I have in front of me,” said Laureano, who played with Olson and Sean Murphy in Oakland and called them two of the best teammates he ever had. “I just go about it like that. I don’t really think too much, about how negative the situation might be and stuff. I just go about it like, ‘OK, f— it.’

“Like, we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do.”

As for Kelenic, after tinkering with his swing and stance for months, he’s had a good rhythm at the plate in recent weeks and wasn’t about to change anything after moving up to the leadoff spot.

Before Saturday, he had just a .128 average and .468 OPS in 22 previous games at the leadoff spot, including 20 starts, all but three in his 2021 rookie season.

“I think the one thing I’ve done a really good job of lately, is I’ve just taken each at-bat (separately), just being present in the box and trying to play chess with the pitcher,” Kelenic said before the game. “So I’m just going to keep doing that. My main goal is to get on base and let these guys drive me in.”

Or drive himself in as he did in the fifth inning, when he started the kind of homer-fueled big inning the Braves were known for in 2023, but not so much this season. Now they’ve had two five-run innings in two days after Ozuna’s three-run homer highlighted a five-run first inning in the 7-3 series-opening win Friday.

The other part of filling in for Harris — playing center field — is much more familiar to Kelenic, who had made 100 previous starts in center with Seattle including 75 as a rookie in 2021. He started eight games in center for the Mariners last season and played some spring training games there this year.

“I played him in center in spring training,” Snitker said, “just figuring if Michael needed a day or he stubbed his toe or something and was going to miss two or three days that he could go out there. He’s athletic enough and a good enough outfielder that we can put him in any position. He can run, his arm is really good.

“You know, Michael is special in center field. It’s tough when you lose guys like that. It’s hard to replace him. But I think Jarred will do a fine job.”

(Photo of Jarred Kelenic hitting a two-run home run: Brett Davis / Getty Images)

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