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When the Atlanta Braves open a three-game home series against the Tampa Bay Bays on Friday night, they will do it without superstar outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr., who is out for the season with a torn right ACL he suffered Saturday against the Miami Marlins.

Atlanta sits one game under .500 — a half-game behind the Philadelphia Phillies and four behind the first-place New York Mets in the National League East.

Braves manager Brian Snitker likely will lean on All-Star first baseman Freddie Freeman to pick up the slack in the 23-year-old Acuna’s absence.

Freeman (.274 average, 19 homers, 50 RBIs) and his plate prowess have been a mainstay in Atlanta’s attack. Following a severe spring training bout with COVID-19 last season, he returned to win the NL’s Most Valuable Player award – the first Brave to do so since Chipper Jones in 1999.

But uncertainty surrounds Freeman, who is making $22 million in the final year of his contract.

“Yes, 100 percent,” Freeman told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution when asked if he wanted to stay in Atlanta. “I hope something gets done. I wish something had (already) been done so we’re not talking about this.

“I’ve been here since I was 17 years old, and I turn 32 in September. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be, so I truly do hope something gets done.”

Charlie Morton (8-3, 3.64 ERA) will pitch for Atlanta in the series opener. In five career starts against the Rays, the right-hander is 2-3 with a 3.23 ERA.

After a strong but slightly inconsistent first half of 2021, manager Kevin Cash’s Rays will try to duplicate much of the success that had them in first place in the American League East for 29 days.

Their high-water mark occurred June 14 when they sat 19 games over .500. But since achieving that 43-24 record, they have gone 10-13 – starting on the night of the last outing of ace Tyler Glasnow, who left the game in Chicago against the White Sox with a partially torn UCL.

The hottest player for Cash at the halfway point is slugger Brandon Lowe, who has been on a home-run tear since June 27. He closed the first half by hitting seven homers in his nine games.

Lowe, 27, has a team-leading 21 homers – two more than catcher Mike Zunino and five more than Austin Meadows.

“I think it’s just him staying confident. (He’s) really turning his season around and doing some special things,” Cash said. “He knows he’s a good player; we certainly know he’s a good player, and that he can help us.

“Brandon’s just kind of seeing it through. He’s stayed confident and allowed himself to do this. It’s impressive how hot he’s gotten.”

Tampa Bay’s Friday starter, Michael Wacha (2-2, 4.87), has never beaten the Braves, owning an 0-4 record and 4.71 ERA in seven career appearances, five of them starts.

–Field Level Media