Cubs will face Ronald Acuna Jr. in his 2022 debut on Thursday night

(Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)
(Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images) /

Looking ahead to the rubber match against the defending World Series champs on Thursday night, the Cubs will have their hands full with two-time All-Star outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. making his long-awaited return to the field.

Acuna Jr. suffered a season-ending ACL injury last summer in a game against the Marlins and after rehabbing with Triple-A Gwinnett, he’s ready to breathe life into a Braves team that definitely hasn’t hit its stride yet. Atlanta enters Thursday’s series finale at 8-11, good for fourth in the NL East.

Prior to his injury last season, Acuna Jr. looked like a sure-fire MVP candidate. He had blasted 24 home runs in just 82 games, putting him on pace to flirt with a 50-homer season for the first time in his career. Of course, the Braves made some midseason pick-ups in the wake of the injury and wound up bringing home the club’s first championship since 1995.

Back to the Cubs’ task tonight, well, it’s a tall one. When on the field, Acuna Jr. is among the best players in the game – and left-hander Drew Smyly will need to tread carefully. In his career, Acuna Jr. has faced the veteran just two times and is hitless. The two, of course, were teammates in Atlanta last season, as well.

In his career at Truist Park, Acuna Jr. has been his typical wrecking ball self offensively – evidenced by a .949 OPS. Against Chicago, in particular, the former National League Rookie of the Year hasn’t done anything eye-popping, but has still been a solid force at the dish.

Chicago is looking to pick up its first series win since Opening Weekend against the Brewers, which was already nearly three weeks ago. Since then, we’ve seen plenty of highs (a 21-run outburst against the Pirates last weekend, for one) as well as lows (losing the other three games of that series, for example) – and getting consistency, especially in the rotation, has been an issue.

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Throwing Acuna Jr. into the equation likely won’t help that. Still, Smyly has been solid early on (2.45 ERA in three starts) and will look to help the Cubs carry some momentum into the weekend, when they’ll play their first series of the year at American Family Field, the home of their I-94 rivals to the north.