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Sarah Woodall: NL East-leading Braves still in driver's seat despite rough start on West Coast
Braves
Atlanta Braves ninth inning heroes Dansby Swanson, left, and Charlie Culberson celebrate after Culberson hit a walk-off home run to beat the Washington Nationals 4-2 on Sunday, June 3, 2018, in Atlanta. - photo by AP photo

Julio Teheran’s early departure from the mound Monday night resulted in the Atlanta Braves running into a buzzsaw against the Padres.

The 11-4 thumping at Petco Park wasn’t what Atlanta had in mind to kickstart a six-game stint on the West Coast, and definitely wasn’t the ideal follow-up to an uplifting eight-game homestand, which ended a day earlier with the Braves taking three of four games against their division rival Washington.

Despite just a half-game lead over Washington in the NL East as of Tuesday, June 5, what this young ballclub managed to do at SunTrust Park days prior is telling of a squad vying for a playoff berth.

Take Charlie Culberson as an example.

It seems like Culberson only knows one way to hit home runs — and that’s in walk-off fashion.

In the bottom of the ninth on Sunday against the Washington Nationals, the utility player for the NL East-leading Atlanta Braves flipped a 1-2 pitch into a game-winning, mammoth two-run shot that sailed over the left-field wall of SunTrust Park. 

It gave the Braves a 4-2 win over their division rival, capping off the eight-games-in-seven-days homestand to Atlanta’s advantage. 

But that’s not all. Sunday’s heroic belt was the second for Culberson in the last week, and made him the first Atlanta Brave with two in the same season. Out of Culberson’s eight career home runs to date, half — yes half — are via game-winners. 

Culberson, the bearded man with dark, curly locks often mistaken for starting shortstop Dansby Swanson, has helped construct Atlanta’s resurgent 2018 campaign into an artform. The Braves just love to play from behind with 15 comeback victories and six walk-off finishes — four off the long ball — in 2018. And since skipper Brian Snitker took over in May 2017, Atlanta has recorded an MLB-best 46 wins when down to their last at-bat — or final plate appearance (via David O’Brien, AJC).

The “Baby Braves” continue to be a singular force under Snitker as we’re now a third of the way through the MLB season. And Swanson couldn’t have explained it better after Sunday’s win: 

“You can’t script it,” said Swanson, who represented the game-tying run in the ninth inning with a one-out, single-turned-double following an overruling on instant replay. “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.”

These Braves are scrappy, fearless and making headway at an alarming rate once again. 

Atlanta before Monday night’s loss held the second-best record in the NL with a 35-24 mark. And its 13 series wins this year marks five fewer than the team had all of 2017.

And on top of that, the Braves’ pitching was downright filthy against Washington. Mike Foltynewicz’s first career complete-game gem Friday was the franchise’s first with two hits or fewer allowed and double-digit strikeouts (11) in 17 years (Greg Maddux, 2001). It followed another stellar performance from lefty Sean Newcomb, who dealt seven strong innings to snap the Nats’ six-game win streak the night before. And in their 14-inning marathon loss to Washington Saturday, both bullpens countered with dominant frames after the sixth, with Jesse Biddle throwing three shutout innings with eight strikeouts and one hit allowed to give the Braves a chance to win in extras.

Teheran was placed on the 10-day DL Tuesday with a right thumb contusion and, while unsettling, it won’t be the end of the world for Atlanta. The dominance of Newcomb and Foltynewicz in recent weeks meant some restructuring of the rotation was looming anyway. Plus, rookie sensation Ronald Acuna Jr. — originally placed on the 10-day DL — should be back in the starting lineup soon to bring back that additional pop in the order. 

The MLB season is all ebb and flow. But Atlanta is still justifiably hot at a good time with the All-Star break next month. The team has set a manageable pace 61 games into this marathon season. Now, we’ll have to see how the Braves fare against the Padres and Dodgers.

I don’t know what Snitker keeps feeding these Braves, but I’ll have what they’re having.


Sarah Woodall is a sports writer for the Times. She can be reached at swoodall@gainesvilletimes.com or @Woodall8sarah on Twitter.


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