ATLANTA — There is a fine line between a good homestand and a great one.
Did the Atlanta Braves end up on the right side of it this weekend? We’ll let you decide the answer to that on the basis of the following statement.
The Braves just finished a huge eight-game homestand against division rivals that was bookended by walk-off home runs by Charlie Culberson.
Put that in your martini and sip it.
You probably can’t pronounce Mike Foltynewicz’s last name. But if the Atlanta starter keeps pitching like he did in outdueling Stephen Strasburg, he could become a household name.
It began on Monday, in a Memorial Day doubleheader against the reeling New York Mets with storms bearing down on the Atlanta area. Down 3-2 to after a homer by New York’s Devin Mesoraco in the top of ninth, Culberson came on to pinch hit with Johan Camargo on second base with one out in the bottom of the inning. The Mets had tough righty Seth Lugo on the mound. On a 1-2 count, Culberson lofted a high fastball into the second row of the left field bleachers. Game-winner.
"Those are fun," Culberson told reporters after the game, with one of his children in his arms. "I’ll take it."
Culberson takes a lot of those walk-off homers. Way more than his fair share. Which brings us to the companion of that first bookend.
Sunday. Hot as heck in Atlanta, and don’t call it Hot-lanta because the locals don’t like it. It was over 90 degrees and humid, but SunTrust Park was again packed with increasingly excited Braves fans. The opponent this time was the Washington Nationals, who, after a 5-3, 14-inning win over Atlanta on Saturday, were bidding to leave the Braves in second place on the last day of the homestand.
With one out, brash, young shortstop Dansby Swanson stroked a single to left. Only he didn’t see it as a single. After pausing for a millisecond to deke Nationals left fielder Juan Soto, Swanson dashed for second base. Soto’s throw was just late, though second base umpire Tom Hallion had to be overruled via instant replay.
"[Swanson] always pushes the envelope," Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "He comes out of the box looking for two all of the time. That was an aggressive play that started as soon as he hit the ball. It wasn’t an afterthought after he got to first. The reason that guys make those plays is they come out of the box looking to make somebody make a play."
As it turned out, the extra base had no real effect other than what it had on Culberson, who was waiting on deck to pinch hit for reliever Arodys Vizcaino.
"We had talked about just trying to put at-bats together, and not trying to win it on one swing," Culberson said. "It kind of started with Dansby right there. Great at-bat. Hustle double. That kind of got me in my mindset of doing the same thing."
Nationals starter Tanner Roark was on the mound, making his first relief appearance of the season. Washington, because the long game on Saturday and the departure of Sunday starter Jeremy Hellickson after four pitches because of an injured hamstring, was down to just a couple of available pitchers.
Down in the count 0-1, Culberson laid into a belt-high fastball and deposited it halfway up the left-field bleachers. Yup. Charlie did it again. No one could believe it. Not even Charlie. Culberson does not hit home runs. Even he will tell you that.
"Man, it happened again," Culberson said, referring to the thought that popped in his mind when the ball left the bat. "Eight career homers and four walkoff homers. It’s kind of cool. It really is. But it was neat because the fans were into it. I heard them chanting my name. I was like, this is a neat situation."
Culberson may not be anything like a slugger, but when the game is on the line, he transmogrifies into a baseball version of the Incredible Hulk. Culberson’s last three home runs have been game-winners. The first of the trio was the play on which Dodgers legend Vin Scully made his last official game call.
Culberson, who on top of everything else is a native of Rome, Ga., and grew up dreaming of playing for the Braves, has clearly studied "The Idiot’s Guide to Becoming a Folk Hero." In fact, he may have written it. Culberson became the first Atlanta Brave to ever have two walkoff homers in the same season. In fact, only Brian Hunter had two such homers over the course of his Atlanta career.
Charlie Culberson gets a big greeting at home plate after his walk-off home run on Sunday. Daniel Shirey/Getty Images
Culberson joins St. Louis’ Kolton Wong as the only players this season with more than one walkoff homer. Players usually aren’t reliable sources for their own statistics, but Culberson knew all about that four-walkoffs-in-eight-career-homers factoid. You can’t blame him for that. OK, Culberson, bet you didn’t know these tidbits from Elias:
– There are five Hall-of-Famers who played in more than 2,500 career games without a walkoff home run. They are Eddie Collins, Tris Speaker, Luis Aparicio, Ozzie Smith and Sam Crawford.
– Culberson is the only player ever — ever! — to hit three walkoff home runs with no home runs in between.
Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up. For Atlanta, after the perfect punctuation mark for the eight-games-in-seven-days homestand, Sunday’s win continued a couple of trends that are great for documentarians putting together highlight reels of the Braves’ season.
Atlanta now has six walkoff wins this season, four by home runs. Camargo joined the club on Tuesday with a game-ending shot off New York’s Gerson Bautista. On opening day, Nick Markakis’ two-out, three-run shot beat the Phillies.
This is the kind of stuff that happens to teams during magical breakout seasons, and the Braves appear to be on their way to one of those.
"You can’t script it," Swanson said. "It’s truly like amazing, just seeing how this team competes. No matter what the game and the score, we just continue to do what we do and have all the faith in everybody in here. It’s like a family and it’s special to be a part of."
The Braves left town on May 20 after a win over Miami with a 28-17 record and a 1 1/2 game lead in the NL East. The upcoming schedule was brutal: Three games at Philadelphia, three more at Boston, then this week’s four-game sets against New York and Washington. It figured that we’d learn a lot more about these surprising Braves and, indeed, it appears we have.
Atlanta finished the homestand 5-3 and took three of four from Washington. The Braves will once again depart for a roadtrip with a 1 1/2 game lead in the NL East. That would not be the case if Atlanta had not pulled off one late-game win after another. That would not be the case if not for an unsung utility player named Charlie Culberson.
"It’s worked a couple of times this week," said the understated Snitker. "That’s good, right?"
Even the author of the Braves’ postgame press notes is having a good time with all of this. Here’s an item from those: "Pinch-hitter Charlie Culberson drove an 0-1 pitch from Tanner Roark over the wall in left field for his fourth career game-ending home run and his first since Monday."
Seriously, Culberson, what took you so long?
"The feeling never gets old," Culberson said. "I don’t really know what to say. Just right place, right time. Things just kind of work out."
Nobody knows what to say, Charlie, except maybe that folk heroes talk softly and carry a big stick. At least when the game is on the line.