For a career bench player, the thought of starting postseason games ahead of an injured regular is viewed as the chance of a lifetime. For Charlie Culberson, it’s becoming an annual occurrence.
Should Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson miss the NLDS against the Dodgers because of a hand injury – speaking before a workout at SunTrust Park on Tuesday, manager Brian Snitker wasn’t at all optimistic about Swanson’s prognosis – Culberson will be starting in October. This happened to him … why, last October.
Then a Dodger, Culberson became a key man when shortstop Corey Seager hurt his back in the final game of the NLDS against Arizona. The man who had started only twice in the regular season started four of the five NLCS games against the Cubs. He batted .455 with five extra-base hits. He started once in the World Series against the Astros – Seager had returned by then – and authored a stunning home run in the 11th inning of careening Game 2. (It didn’t win the game, but it was still a major moment.)
On Tuesday, Culberson was asked if last year prepares him for what could happen over the next week. “It helps a lot,” he said. “Going from not playing to just jumping into playing in a championship series – I was fortunate enough to do pretty well and help my team out, but the team did well, too. It’s just one of those things where you try not to do too much. You do what you can, keep being the player that you are and don’t try to search for things. Just go out there and play your game. You just try to be that one little piece to help your team win.”
Culberson – born in Rome and an alumnus of Calhoun High – became a Brave last December as a ride-along in the two-way salary dump that sent Matt Kemp back to L.A. and Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir and Adrian Gonzalez to the Braves. (The latter two weren’t Braves for long.) On his fourth organization before he turned 29, Culberson met the definition of a journeyman. He has become far more.
He hit a walk-off homer against the Mets on Memorial Day. He hit another six days later against the Nationals. Of his 12 home runs this year – he’d had six over his first five big-league seasons – half tied a game or put the Braves ahead. He manned seven positions, missing only catcher and center field. (Yes, he pitched.) He went from utility man to essential sub. This club had been seeking its Ben Zobrist for years; Culberson became the rough equivalent.
And now he’s back in the playoffs, and not just in the playoffs but probably as a starter, and not just against anybody but against the team that employed him for two years. Said Culberson: “I had a few cool moments in L.A. The biggest one was probably the Vin Scully home run to clinch the division. A lot of people bring that up.”
Sept. 25, 2016: The last play called by Vin Scully – which is to say the last play called by the greatest announcer ever – came on a walk-off home run by Charlie Culberson, who hadn’t hit a big-league homer in two calendar years. The improbable clout didn’t just win a game; it clinched the West for L.A.
Scully’s call: “Two out here in the 10th inning … Charlie trying to keep the inning alive and let (Yasmani) Grandal come up … 0-1 to Charlie … (crack of the bat) swung on … a HIGH FLY BALL to deep left field … would you believe a HOME RUN? … The Dodgers have clinched the division and will celebrate on schedule!”
Rounding third, Culberson tore off his batting helmet and flung it, with both hands, into the middle of the diamond. By then, Scully had shut up and was letting the pictures tell the tale. (That’s among the thousand reasons he was the best.) Said Culberson on Tuesday: “Those are big moments. Those are moments you live for. You live to be that person to help your team out. I would like to think I was a little part of that. Again, it’s just having a chance to go out there and play and do something well for your team.”
Lo and behold, here comes another chance, this time for a different team. When he was traded to a club that had suffered through four consecutive losing seasons, did Culberson think, “Oh, we’ll see the Dodgers in the playoffs”?
“It might’ve crossed my mind,” he said. “Pretty cool how things work out. I’m very familiar with the team over there, and I’ve definitely enjoyed my year so far here. But we’re not done yet. Our team has played really hard, just like everybody else, but we’re in this position for a reason. There’s no need to let off the gas now.”
Nope. The Braves might be the underdog in this series, and they’re apt to be without their starting shortstop, but they have the right man to fill the breach. Charlie Culberson has been here before. He has done this before. Who better to do it again?