Preston Tucker won’t forget his first hit in a Braves uniform.
After trailing 5-0, the Braves assembled an opening-day comeback to defeat the Phillies 8-5. Tucker’s RBI single in the eighth knotted the score at 5-5.
“It was really cool,” Tucker said. “It was a very exciting game and the second half of the game was awesome. I think that’s the boost this team needed. … This is a beautiful ballpark. The fans were really showing out (Thursday). It was a great first experience here at SunTrust.”
The hit was more than one that tied the score or a means of endearing himself to fans. It was a step back into the fry for the University of Florida product.
Thursday was Tucker’s first major-league action since August 2016.
“I didn’t feel like the game was any faster, but there’s always going to be nerves, like it or not,” he said. “Whether this was your first opening day or 10th, there’s always going to be some nerves. So everyone’s adrenaline was going a little bit more. But that’s what makes it so fun and I think that’s why we had so much fun winning that game.”
As an encore, Tucker again had the game-evening, eighth-inning RBI on Friday, though the team lost to the Phillies 5-4 in 11 innings.
Tucker spent his final season in the Astros organization buried in Triple-A while the major-league team claimed its first championship. He slashed .250/.333/.465 with 24 homers and seven triples across 128 games with the Fresno Grizzlies.
“Patience is the first thing,” Tucker said of what he learned last season. “Patience in trying to make it back to the big leagues, and you try to have a better approach. I wasn’t where I wanted to be in my career before I was sent down last year, but I think I’m a better player than I was so that’s all I can really ask for.”
Tucker, 27, spent 2015-16 trying to carve out a role in Houston. He hit .243 with 13 homers in 300 at-bats during his rookie season. He appeared in just 48 games the next season, hitting .164 in 134 at-bats.
He finished with a .219 average and .274 OBP in 146 games, slipping out of the Astros’ plans.
The Braves acquired Tucker on Dec. 20 for a player to be named later or cash considerations. It provided a fresh start and ample opportunity; both of which Tucker’s used to his advantage.
The Tampa native hit .353 with a homer and 10 RBIs in 51 at-bats in spring training. He sensed there was a chance to earn more playing time and, for the first time in his major-league career, started in an opening-day outfield.
“It was absolutely a goal,” he said. “Going into every season, I set my goals high. I’m not trying to be a backup or bench guy, but then again you have to embrace every role you can. Being able to play every day is good for me and the more at-bats I get the better, so I’m going to try to do that to the best of my ability.”
The Braves called Tucker on Tuesday night telling him he made the team. It was a brief conversation and didn’t elaborate on his role.
“Alright,” Tucker said to general manager Alex Anthopoulos. “I’ll see you Thursday.”
Tucker will split time with late spring acquisition Peter Bourjos in left field, though he’s expected to handle the heavier load for now.
“For now” serves as an imperative qualifier: The feel-good vibes may be strong now, but the looming reality is No. 1 prospect Ronald Acuna will join the team as early as April 14. And it won’t be Ender Inciarte or Nick Markakis bumped to the bench for Acuna to assume an everyday role.
“In Houston that’s all I ever heard,” a candid Tucker said. “We had a ton of prospects coming up through that system. But then again, whatever role they want to give me, that’s playing left or any other position, or if it’s not starting. I think I have to embrace it any way I can.”
Tucker echoed the same thoughts he had earlier in the spring. He’ll accept a fourth outfielder or bench role if the time comes.
And it’s made easier because of who’d take his place in left.
“He’s going to help the team,” Tucker said of Acuna. “I think if he’s playing to the best of his ability, he’s going to help the team. So you shouldn’t keep him out of the lineup for whatever reasons. Whether I can find myself in the lineup somewhere or playing well in a bench role, I’m going to try to do that the best I can.”