Home runs? Comeback? Braves open season with miracle win

The Braves congratulate Nick Markakis (left) after he hit a three-run home run in the ninth-inning to cap an eight-run comeback in an 8-5 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies at SunTrust Park.

Credit: ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJ

caption arrowCaption
The Braves congratulate Nick Markakis (left) after he hit a three-run home run in the ninth-inning to cap an eight-run comeback in an 8-5 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies at SunTrust Park.

Credit: ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJ

Credit: ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJ

Welcome to 2018.

Welcome to Fantasyland.

Welcome to the upside and illogical world, where there are heroes named Preston Tucker and Charlie Culberson in the same week the Easter Bunny takes center stage, where an unlikely cleanup hitter named Nick Markakis -- who hit eight home runs all of last season -- steps to the plate in the ninth inning and clubs the first walk-off homer of his 12-year-plus-one-game career.

Welcome to first place.

The Braves’ clinch number in the National League East dropped to 162. Hey, might as well milk this. Might as well embrace what may possibly stand as the Braves’ most improbable victory by the end of this season.

They trailed Philadelphia 5-0. Their starting pitcher (Julio Teheran) looked ordinary again and their bullpen looked predictably flammable. But then came a Freddie Freeman two-run homer in the sixth, and an Ozzie Albie home run to jump start a three-run eighth, and a wait-did-that-just-happen three-run ninth on Markakis’s homer.

The Braves won 8-5 in the season opener. Minutes later, the dark skies over SunTrust Park opened up and rain hammered the field, just like in the movies.

So new general manager Alex Anthopoulos takes the early lead in executive of the year with a Biblical miracle.

He acquired Preston Tucker, who tied the game with a run-scoring single in the eighth inning, from Houston for a player to be named later or cash. He acquired Charlie Culberson, who opened the ninth with a hit, from Los Angeles in the Matt Kemp dump.

The rest of the lineup, the normal lineup, was not expected to provide a lot of punch this season, but it combined for three home runs: Freeman (not unexpected), the pint-sized Ozzie Albies (who hit three in 22 games last season) and Markakis (who totaled – totaled – 24 in his first three seasons with the Braves).

We should’ve known something strange was going to happen. Albies said he dreamed about something like this in late January.

“It was during Fanfest,” he said. “I had a dream in a hotel that I was going to hit a home run on opening day with my mother in stands.”

Albies had seven family members in attendance Thursday. This is his mother’s first visit to Atlanta from Curacao.

Still with us?

The Braves were listed as 175-1 to win the World Series. I’m not saying that’s going to happen. I’m just saying those odds don’t look as daunting as they did before the game.

“Ozzie was the key to us getting things started,” Freeman said. “Preston had a huge hit to tie the game. Charlie with a big knock. Everybody contributed.”

One game. One win. One hundred and sixty-one to go. But …

“It feels good,” Markakis said. “You want to start out good. You don’t want to dig yourself a hole.”

They did that at 5-0. They looked like … well, like they were expected to look. There were boos from fans and there were more than 10,000 empty seats at SunTrust Park (even though the game was announced as a sellout). Some of the early depressing bullet points:

• Teheran lost his no-hitter to the first batter (Cesar Hernandez single) and before the first inning was done also was dented by a wild pitch and a RBI double. He also walked the pitcher to open the third inning and allowed a home run, walk and hit batter in the sixth before being lifted with two outs.

• Catcher Tyler Flowers, who missed a week of spring training with a groin strain, left the game with an oblique strain during an at-bat in the second. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him land on the disabled list.

• Reliever No. 1, Rex Brothers, forced in a run with consecutive walks. He begins the year with the dreaded “infinity” ERA because reliever No. 2, Dan Winkler entered and allowed a two-run single.

But all of the pain went away with a three-run eighth that tied the game. The inning included two walks, a passed ball, a throwing error and a four-leaf clover.

Then, in the ninth, Charlie Culberson beat out a nubber near the pitcher’s mound. Ender Inciarte sacrificed him to second. Freeman was intentionally walked with two outs to get to ... the cleanup hitter.

Question: How many opponents walk a batter to get to the other team’s cleanup hitter?

But Markakis took Hector Neris deep, slamming a splitter over the right-center field.

Ball game.

Celebration.

Huh?

Markakis had a solid spring in this, the final year of his Braves’ contract. He had no idea he would be batting cleanup until he got to the stadium.

“I had no idea. It doesn’t matter,” he said. “They’ve got cameras, pitching (reports), scouting reports. You just go with it. My approach didn’t change. When you start doing that, you get into trouble.”

The Braves were in trouble. That seemed like a long time ago after the game.

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