Culberson filling in well for Acuña

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Atlanta’s left field duo of Preston Tucker and Charlie Culberson will never be mistaken for the object Braves fans heart’s desire. Yet both have made measurable contributions in the absence of the franchises generational young prospect.

It was supposed to be opening day left fielder Ronald Acuna. Instead, it was opening day left fielder Preston Tucker. All he did was drive in the game-tying run in a comeback win against Philadelphia.

It was supposed to be Ronald Acuna with the heroic moments. Instead, it was Charlie Culberson, the owner of three game-winning home runs in the last month.

For the Atlanta Braves, this 2018 season feels like it’s on the verge of altering the future of the franchise in ways most never imagined. Expectations are being exceeded.

Regardless of the final outcome—missing the playoffs or winning the World Series—the experience gained over the course of this season will prove to be invaluable in the long run.

But it wasn’t supposed to be like this. The season was supposed to be like the previous three. 78 wins would have been great!

What the fanbase really wanted was to see the young players develop. The headline act was the debut of their knight in shining armor, Ronald Acuna. When he did debut, each at-bat became appointment viewing. His first MLB home run, a moon shot at Cincinnati, still hasn’t landed.

But to the surprise of everybody following the team, the season quickly became about much more than prospects and 78 wins. The team started above .500 and never wavered from their early success.

Suddenly, with Acuna, Albies, Newcomb, and Folty all budding right before our eyes, things had become difficult. Playoffs?

Then, IT happened. The fun carpet ride ended…or so we thought.

May 27th:
Atlanta was leading Boston 6-1 in the top of the seventh, working their way toward salvaging a tough road trip.

The Braves had knocked Chris Sale, one of the top pitchers in the sport, out of the game before he could even finish the fifth inning. Mike Foltynewicz was carving up one of the best lineups in baseball.

Suddenly, the game, and perhaps the season, changed with one foot hitting the ground wrong. Nineteen-year-old left fielder Ronald Acuna, universally viewed as the best prospect in baseball, injured his knee beating out an infield single. It was a simple baseball play. A seemingly innocent moment suddenly became dire.

It does not matter where you were watching or listening that day. The moment Acuna went down, the collective Braves fan base, and baseball world, was brought to a screeching halt for a brief moment.

For me, it was the radio with Ben Ingram and Mark Lemke on the call. It sounded bad. Very bad. There was a wheelchair and he wasn’t moving. The moment brought me out of my work trance. I was deep in the woods working with my hands. I had to stop what I was doing and jump on my phone to check Twitter for confirmation that what I was hearing was a reality.

Was it as bad Ben’s description? Then thoughts start pouring in.

Why Ronald? Why, sports gods, why? Please don’t be true. Don’t be real.

A feeling only sports fans could relate to.

Immediately I thought of Mickey Mantle’s knee injury in Game 2 of the 1951 World Series. He got injured on a rubber drain cover in the outfield trying to make a simple baseball play. Mantle was a 19-year-old rookie at the time. He had a .267 average with 13 home runs that season at the age of 19—the same age as Acuna. Mantle went on to be a Hall of Fame player and one of the greatest in history despite the injury, but there’s no question that injury prevented him from being even greater.

(Side note: If Acuna has a career 75 percent as good as Mantle’s, we will all be lucky to watch it.)

That brings us back to the bigger picture. Acuna had only appeared in 29 games since being called up from Triple-A when he got hurt. In those 29 games, he hit .265 with five home runs.

Fans were right to wonder what would happen in his absence. Suddenly the 30-21 record looked like a fun surge soon to fade as the fan base feared the worst with Acuna’s knee. The next day we learned that it wasn’t as serious as it could have been. Acuna was placed on the disabled list and ultimately missed less than a month.

The next day, we also learned that Charlie Culberson, to surprise of most, was ready to fill in.

One of the beautiful things about sports fandom and following teams for an entire season is the appreciation for everyone who contributed. Not everyone can score 40 goals or hit 40 home runs. To win a division takes a blend of contributions from everyone.

Culberson hit a pinch-hit, walk-off, two-run home run to beat the New York Mets the day after Acuna went down. It was easily one of the most exciting moments of the season.

Six days later, he followed that up with another pinch-hit, walk-off two-run home run. This time against Washington. The win gave the Braves a 1.5-game lead in the division over the Nationals. A moment that served as a huge confidence builder for the young Braves.

Last week, Culberson hit a solo homer in a 1-0 win against San Diego.

In total, Culberson has hit .318 with four home runs and four doubles in 18 games and counting. His 148 WRC+ Is 2nd on the team since May 28th.

Before Acuna came up in early May, it was Preston Tucker in left field. He homered in consecutive games in the team’s second series of the season, both wins, against the Nationals (currently 3 games behind Atlanta in the division). The second home run, a three-run blast, came in the first inning off Max Scherzer. A moment that changed that game.

Nine days later, he hit the decisive shot, another three-run home run in a 4-0 win over the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

You can make the case that the Braves would have lost all three games if Tucker had struck out in those at-bats.

If the Braves end up winning the division by one or two games, it will be hard to forget the contributions from both.

Five years from now, if this season was the starting point for a fun run of playoff seasons, Culberson and Tucker will largely be forgotten. But they shouldn’t be. Appreciate them. Appreciate their moments. And appreciate what this team is doing.

Acuna is back in the lineup tonight at Triple-A Gwinnett and presumably days away from returning to the majors. More moments are sure to come.

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