When the Braves traded Matt Kemp to the Dodgers in a complicated, financially driven five-player swap that kept the Dodgers under the luxury tax for 2018 and cleared the Braves’ financial decks for 2019 – Kemp had two years left on his hefty contract – the players many viewed as a throw-in part of the deal was utility man Charlie Culberson, the only player of the four sent to Atlanta who wasn’t in the final year of his contract.
But Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos said at the time of that December trade that Culberson was more than stats indicated, that the Rome native was a “Gold Glove caliber” defender who would be a strong backup at shortstop and other positions and a major addition to the clubhouse.
Anthopoulos was right about the solid defense and clubhouse aspect – Braves players laud him as a great teammate, and Culberson is a genuinely nice guy with an admirable ability to connect with everyone including the team’s young Latin players – but what he didn’t say much about was the other part of Culberson’s rather unique skill set, though many will argue until the cows come home that clutch hitting isn’t a skill.
Regardless of what it is, “Charlie Big Hits” has a penchant for delivering clutch hits, which he did again Sunday with his pinch-hit walk-off homer to beat the Nationals and give the Braves a 3-1 series win over their division rival.
Did we mention that Culberson also began the eight-game homestand with a pinch-hit walk-off homer Monday to beat the Mets?
Yes, two pinch-hit walk-off homers in one week.
And of his eight career homers, four have been walk-off homers. That’s ridiculous, but that’s an inexplicable quality you like to have in a guy on your roster, especially when it’s a guy that everyone loves, and believe me, everyone on the Braves loves this guy. Because “Charlie Big Hits” is also Mr. Nice Guy, and when someone like that hits game-winning bombs, well, teammates just feel good. About winning. About the way they won. About everything.
How unusual is it for a player to have two pinch-hit walk-off homers in a season, much less a week? Glad you asked.
Culberson is the first player with two pinch-hit walk-off homers in a season it for the Braves since the team moved to Atlanta in 1966. Actually, Brian Hunter is the only other Brave in that span to even have two in his career.
The last major leaguer with two pinch-hit walk-off homers in a season was Jason Giambi of the 2013 Indians.
What we’re saying is, it’s extremely uncommon. But then, so is a lot about this Braves team.
After three consecutive seasons with 90 or more losses, the rebuilding Braves are no longer rebuilding. By that I mean if they trade for prospects and young players now, it won’t be a deal designed solely for the future and at the expense of the current team. The Braves are in it to win it now.
They’re not ready to spend major dollars – that comes next winter, or at least they say it will – but they’ll look more to add, not subtract, before the trade deadline this year.
I think the Braves will wait until closer to the deadline before deciding which, if any, moves to make, because what seems like the biggest need now might not seem that way at all in six weeks. The team got extraordinary early production from Ozzie Albies, who has cooled some, and 34-year-old Nick Markakis is having a career season batting in the middle of the lineup. Can that continue? If not, the Braves might need to add a bat before the trade deadline.
They could also spring a leak in the rotation, given the rate at which innings are climbing for pitchers who’ve either never pitched a full major league season or have struggled in recent years to make it through a season healthy.
The bullpen that I thought seemed the possible biggest need a couple of weeks ago might not be any longer, especially if Luiz Gohara is used there. In any event, the Braves shouldn’t have trouble adding a reliever or two before the deadline if they need one.
I think team officials realize this squad has progressed quicker than most expected. Instead of competing for a division title and pennant in 2019 the Braves might just have the goods to stay in the race all season in 2018, and can at least compete for a postseason berth as a wild-card contender even if the Nationals play up to their expected level and finish with 90 or more wins as most expected when they made them the favorites again in the NL East entering the season.
We’re now 59 games into the season, more than one-third done with the 162-game grind, and your division-leading Braves have the NL’s second-best record (35-24) and second-best run differential (1.1 per game, behind the Cubs’ 1.7). They have the majors’ second-best record against teams .500 or better (19-14, behind the Yankees’ 18-7).
And even though the Nationals are coming, as evident by their 21-9 record in their past 30 games, it’s not as if the Braves are fading fast. They’re 17-13 in that same period and just took three of four in a series that could’ve easily been a Braves sweep. Braves pitchers allowed just 19 hits and seven earned runs in 41 innings in that series – including a 14-inning loss -- and totaled 44 strikeouts with eight walks. The Nationals, who came in riding a 10-game road winning streak, hit .137 in four games in Atlanta.
Folks, the recent seasons of Nationals dominance over the Braves mean absolutely nothing to this Atlanta team.
And while we’re discussing these Braves, who had three walk-off wins last week, it’s worth noting again that it leads the majors with 46 wins in its last at-bat since Brian Snitker took over as manager May 16, 2016. That’s not necessarily walk-off wins, though there are plenty of those among them. It’s wins in which the Braves scored their winning run in their final inning at the plate.
Every team says it never quits, it plays until the last out, etc., but this team actually means it when it says it. And that’s again a reflection of this team’s team chemistry, its seemingly ideal blend of youthful enthusiasm and positive veterans who keep the ship running smoothly and not only allow the young players to be themselves, but make it clear to them that it’s encouraged.
No need to worry about a pecking order or silly rules about what a rookie can and can’t do in the clubhouse or at the food line. No need to genuflect in the presence of a veteran.
This Braves team has veterans – Freddie Freeman, Nick Markakis, Brandon McCarthy, Kurt Suzuki, Tyler Flowers, Peter Moylan, et al -- who don’t have time for that garbage and who all lead, either by example and/or vocally. And who were also smart enough to know beginning this spring that it made no sense not to make all the rookies and prospects feel comfortable on a team that was going to rely so heavily on them if it were to meet its goals.
Think about this: Half of the 22 players on the Braves’ current roster with WAR scores above 0.0 this season are making $575,000 or less: Albies, Culberson, Dansby Swanson, Johan Camargo, Sean Newcomb, Ronald Acuna, Shane Carle, Jesse Biddle, Gohara, A.J. Minter and Preston Tucker. And a 12th, reliever and All-Star candidate Dan Winkler, is making $610,000.
I really believe that allowing the younger guys among that bunch to be themselves, to express emotion after wins or post a 10-second video of a locker-room celebration involving some of the youngest ones, is part of why this team has the terrific clubhouse chemistry that’s helping them perform better than pundits predicted.
“Why not? We won,” Freeman said, regarding the 10-second video that featured Acuna and Albies joyous in the clubhouse after the Braves’ remarkable six-run ninth-inning rally to beat the Marlins on May 20. “Doing nothing wrong except for having fun after a game and winning. If that’s what they want to do they can post a 20-second video, I don’t care.”
Simple as that. Can’t argue with the logic. Or results.
* Let’s close with this one from the great Tom Waits, who was once a San Diego resident.
“SAN DIEGO SERENADE” by Tom Waits
I never saw the morning 'til I stayed up all night
I never saw the sunshine 'til you turned out the light
I never saw my hometown until I stayed away too long
I never heard the melody, until I needed a song.
I never saw the white line, 'til I was leaving you behind
I never knew I needed you 'til I was caught up in a bind
I never spoke 'I love you' 'til I cursed you in vain,
I never felt my heartstrings until I nearly went insane.
I never saw the East coast 'til I move to the West
I never saw the moonlight until it shone off your breast
I never saw your heart 'til someone tried to steal, tried to steal it away
I never saw your tears until they rolled down your face