After string of adversity, Charlie Culberson begins bid to make Braves roster

Charlie Culberson stepped into the cage Sunday to take live batting practice at CoolToday Park, the Braves' new spring training base. He fouled off the first few pitches — unusual but insignificant — before lining a ball into center.

For Culberson, the Braves’ human Swiss Army knife, those swings unofficially began his comeback.

“I just have one thing on my mind: Come in here and play well, have fun and make this ballclub again,” he said. “Making the team, that’s it.”

When trying to lay down a bunt in September, Culberson was hit in the face by a pitch. He suffered multiple fractures and missed the remainder of the season, which concluded with the Braves' National League Division Series loss to the Cardinals.

It was a graphic injury that prompted emotional responses from manager Brian Snitker and Culberson’s teammates. He’s a loved figure in the clubhouse, and while he was with the team during the postseason, it was difficult for him to helplessly watch the team be eliminated.

“Honestly, if it had to happen, it happening at the end of the season was probably the best thing,” Culberson said. “That way I knew I had an offseason to get over the injury and not have an eight-to-10-week schedule, come back and start playing again in a shorter amount of time. I feel like for the most part, I’ve had a clear mind and I have good people around me pushing me and helping me out.

“Having people say they’re excited to watch me play again is pretty special. I just take that to heart.”

Credit: Manuel Balce Ceneta

Credit: Manuel Balce Ceneta

» PHOTOS: Charlie Culberson hit in face by pitch

The Rome native, who graduated from Calhoun High, spent the offseason recovering and spending time with his family. But that peaceful period was interrupted by further adversity in early December, when the Braves non-tendered Culberson, making him a free agent. He didn't receive a guaranteed contract from another club, so he opted to rejoin the Braves on a minor-league deal a couple of weeks later. It also cost him a spot on the team's crunched 40-man roster.

“At the end of 2019, things were still pretty good,” he said. “I was still on the roster, things were good. But things change. That’s how it is. That’s how baseball goes. It’s not my first rodeo when it comes to offseason transactions. But I was hopeful for things to come and things always work out. I’m excited to put the jersey back on and play at home again.”

This is the latest trial of Culberson’s unorthodox career. Now 30, he played for a trio of NL West clubs — the Giants, Rockies and Dodgers — before he was dealt to the Braves before the 2018 season.

Culberson was a relative unknown at that time. He logged only 197 games before arriving in Atlanta, though he carved out history in Los Angeles when he hit a walk-off homer in legendary broadcaster Vin Scully’s final home game a few seasons ago.

But when Culberson, dubbed “Charlie Clutch,” came to the Braves, he had a home-state jolt. He hit .270 with 32 extra-base hits and 45 RBIs, helping the Braves return to the postseason in 2018. He quickly became a fan favorite and beloved clubhouse presence.

Last season didn’t provide the same storybook production. He’d hit .259/.294/.437 with 12 extra-base hits and 20 RBIs while appearing in 108 games before his injury. Entering 2020, Culberson isn’t guaranteed a contract or spot on the bench.

A harsh new reality: As if recovering from facial fractures wasn’t enough, Culberson now faces an uphill climb to keep his job. As he worded it, however, that’s nothing new.

“I’ve had that chip my whole career,” he said. “There’s never been a year where I felt like I (was guaranteed) a spot. And that’s OK. I have to go out there and keep improving myself in the role I have. I feel like I’ve grasped that utility role pretty well, but I feel like I can continue to get better, and I’m going to do that.”

Culberson launched his bid for a spot on the newly expanded 26-man roster Sunday, when he stepped back into the cage. He was encouraged by how he felt hacking at pitches again. He likes where he is physically and mentally.

“Vision was always great,” he said. “It’s still healing. But my mind is good. I’m ready and excited. I’m trying to put that stuff behind me and look forward. … Try not to think too much about (the injury). Just find a good pitch and put a swing on it.

“I’m going to go out there and just play baseball again.”