By PAUL NEWBERRY
AP Sports Writer
ATLANTA (AP) – Ronald Acuña Jr. became the second-youngest player in baseball history to hit 40 homers in a season, Freddie Freeman also drove in two runs and the Atlanta Braves clinched at least a tie for first place in the NL East with a 5-4 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies on Thursday.
With eight games left in the regular season, a second straight division title seems a formality for the Braves. They hold a 9 1/2-game lead over the Washington Nationals, who have played three fewer games and were off Thursday.
The Braves can officially celebrate as soon as Friday with either a victory over the San Francisco Giants or if Washington loses at Miami.
After winning the first two games of the series, Philadelphia’s postseason hopes took another blow. The Phillies came into the day trailing both Milwaukee and the Chicago Cubs by three games for the NL’s second wild-card spot.
Acuña’s historic homer came with a flourish. He launched a 432-foot drive into the second deck at SunTrust Park, standing at home plate to admire his shot off Aaron Nola before tossing the bat away and slowly rounding the bases.
Mel Ott, who was 20 when he hit 42 homers for the New York Giants in 1940, is the only player younger than Acuña to post a 40-homer season. Eddie Mathews also was 21 but about two months older than Acuña when he hit 47 homers for the Milwaukee Braves in 1953.
Ott and Mathews are both members of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Acuña is still three stolen bases shy of another milestone. He has 37 steals in his quest to become just the fifth 40-40 player in baseball history, following Jose Canseco (1988), Barry Bonds (1996), Alex Rodriguez (1998) and Alfonso Soriano (2006).
After Acuña’s homer put the Braves ahead, Philadelphia pulled even in the fifth. Adam Haseley drove a run-scoring double to right off Mike Soroka, took third on Nola’s single and came in to score on César Hernández’s forceout.
But Freeman reclaimed the lead for Atlanta in the bottom half when Freeman ripped a one-out single to right off Nola (12-6) to bring home Matt Joyce and Acuña.
Joyce got the inning started with a pinch-hit single batting for Soroka (13-4), who was lifted after 88 pitches in one of his final tuneups for the postseason.
Soroka surrendered five hits, struck out five and didn’t walk anyone.
Nola worked five-plus innings. Philadelphia cut the lead to 4-3 in the sixth, but Austin Riley answered with his 18th homer of the season off the Phillies right-hander leading off the bottom half. Nola gave up nine hits, two hits and all five Atlanta runs.
Philadelphia loaded the bases with one out in the eighth off Shane Greene but only managed one run on Scott Kingery’s sacrifice fly.
Mark Melancon worked perfect ninth for his 11th save with Atlanta and 12th overall this season.
Phillies SS Jean Segura left the game in the sixth after appearing to injure his left hamstring while beating out an infield single.
Maikel Franco took over a pinch-runner and remained in the game at third base, with Kingery moving over to fill Segura’s spot at shortstop.
Phillies: Head to Cleveland on Friday to begin a three-game series against the Indians, who are battling for an AL wild-card spot. LH Drew Smyly (4-6, 6.22 ERA) goes for Philadelphia against RH Shane Bieber (14-7, 3.26).
Braves: RH Mike Foltynewicz (7-5, 4.80) will try to wrap up the East for Atlanta when he opens a three-game series against San Francisco. The Giants counter with RH Tyler Beede (5-9, 5.02).