Culberson’s pinch-hit, walk-off homer lifts Braves over Nats
— As the Braves exited what has been their most daunting stretch of the season and found themselves still atop the National League East standings, it seemed only fitting that they were celebrating yet another walk- off victory supplied by the man who has mastered the art of hitting a gameending home run.
There was certainly a sense of awe and wonderment when former Calhoun High star Charlie Culberson ended this homestand the same way he started it with yet another of his walk-off home runs. His latest victim was Nationals right-hander Tanner Roark, who was forced into a relief role before allowing Culberson to hit a twoout ninth-inning homer that kept the Braves in first place with Sunday’s 4-2 win at SunTrust Park.
“Man, it happened again,” Culberson said when asked about his immediate thought. “That’s pretty cool. It really is. The fans were really into it. I heard them chanting my name. I was thinking this is a neat situation. To be in it again, I was like, ‘just put a good swing on it, get a good pitch and try not to do too much. And it happened. I’m like, ‘Wow.’ It’s pretty neat.”
Culberson has totaled eight homers in his big league career, and four of those have been walkoff shots. He stands as the only player in MLB history to tally this many game-ending shots with fewer than 30 career homers. Chris Jones, a journeyman from the 1990s, tallied 30 career home runs, five of which ended games.
“He just has a knack for doing it,” Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson said. “You can’t say enough about him. He’s a phenomenal guy and phenomenal teammate. Every day, whether he’s playing or not, he’s the same guy. He makes everyone around better. When you have guys like that around, the sky is the limit.”
When Swanson capped a six-run ninthinning rally with a walkoff single against the Marlins on May 20, the Braves were staring at a daunting 14-game stretch that would pit them against the Phillies, Red Sox, Mets and Nationals. Those who viewed this as a chance to determine whether they were legit now have to be doing some believing.
The Braves split those 14 games. But with three wins during this four-game set against the Nationals, who came to town with a six-game winning streak, Atlanta is still atop the NL East standings, sitting 1 1/2 games ahead of Washington.
“They answered a lot of questions,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “I don’t think it’s a mistake. We’re a good ballclub. We’re in every game. They never quit. That grit and guts they show is going to show up every day. I’m very pleased with where we are.”
Within this eightgame homestand, the Braves tallied three of their six walk-off wins. The first was claimed when Culberson concluded the first game of Monday’s doubleheader against the Mets with one of his walk-off homers. “Atlanta is not gonna go away,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “They’re really good. They are.”
Martinez had to scramble when a right hamstring strain chased starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson with one out in the first inning. This prompted the entry of Jefry Rodriguez, who completed 4 2/3 scoreless innings as he made his MLB debut just three days after totaling 87 pitches in a start for Double-A Harrisburg.
After Trea Turner gave the Nationals an early lead with his tworun homer off Anibal Sanchez in the second inning, Swanson tied the game with his seventhinning leadoff homer off Shawn Kelley. The Braves shortstop also recorded a hustle double to set the ninth-inning stage for Culberson, who smacked Roark’s 0-1 fastball over the left-field wall and then reintroduced himself to that majestic gameending stroll around the bases.
“You can’t script it,” Swanson said. “It truly is amazing how this team competes. No matter the score, we do what we do. We’ve got all the faith in everybody in here. It’s like a family. It’s special to be a part of.”
Available and dependable: Snitker took some heat when he opted to rest both Arodys Vizcaino and Dan Winkler during Saturday’s 14- inning loss, which was suffered after Mike Foltynewicz had gone the distance in Friday’s win. But his determination to protect his players proved valuable Sunday when Winkler worked a perfect eighth and Vizcaino pitched around trouble during a scoreless ninth.
“We got to the two guys we hadn’t used yesterday,” Snitker said. “That will benefit us the next three days before we get to the off-day.”
The Braves continue to benefit from their decision to provide a Minor League deal to Sanchez near the end of Spring Training. The veteran surrendered Turner’s home run, but proved perfect in four of the seven innings worked against this capable Nationals offense. He has allowed two earned runs or fewer in three of his four starts, and the Braves have won each of those three games.
“He’s got a great feel for pitching and knows what he’s doing,” Snitker said. “I think his stuff is better than what I was led to believe when we signed him. He’s sneaky. He knows what he’s doing. He can change speeds, and he locates the fastball well.”
When Swanson drilled his game-tying home run in the seventh and doubled in the ninth, he was thinking about two of his former friends from Vanderbilt.
Dai- Jon Parker drowned while tubing around this time of year in 2015, and this week marked the twoyear anniversary of the drowning death of Donny Everett, who was one of Swanson’s collegiate teammates.
“During these moments and these times, it’s like there’s somebody watching over me,” Swanson said. “It’s pretty emotional and amazing. I was walking in here [ after Sunday’s game] thinking, ‘I can’t make this stuff up.’ The day Dai- Jon passed away, two days later I had a game-winning homer [for Vanderbilt]. That same anniversary, my first [professional] year, I hit a homer. Last year, in [ Cincinnati] on the anniversary of Donny passing away, I hit a homer. There’s just something about this week. You can’t make it up. If you ever need confirmation that God is real, for me, it’s just like look at these moments and it’s like miracles happen.”
Atlanta’s Charlie Culberson follows through with his swing on his two-run walk-off homer on Sunday.