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Braves’ Culberson is making most of recent opportunity

The chance to play for his hometown team really was a dream come true for Charlie Culberson. But until a couple of weeks ago, the dream wasn’t going entirely as the utility player from Rome hoped it would.

As great as it was to be with his wife, Sarah, and their three young children in metro Atlanta, able to take a short drive to the ballpark for games, to play in front of family and friends and to fit in so well in the clubhouse with a tight-knit Braves team, there was one negative: Culberson wasn’t doing a lot on the field to help the team win.

“When you don’t play much and you get a chance and you don’t produce, then you can question yourself and everyone else does – and that’s OK,” said Culberson, who knows there were outside observers questioning his ability in the season’s first two months as he hit .204 (11-for-54) with four extra-base hits, two RBIs and a .567 OPS in 28 games through May 27. “It’s not easy and you obviously come to the park wanting to do something to help your team. And you’re not getting many opportunities, and when you do and you’re not doing anything it’s like, this kind of sucks. 

“But you just keep pushing forward and hoping for a break at some point.”

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After an unfortunate injury to Braves outfield phenom Ronald Acuna in a May 27 tumble in Boston, suddenly there was an expanded role for Culberson, an opportunity to show what he could do with regular playing time in left field rather than pinch-hitting and infrequent starts at shortstop or third base.

Braves manager Brian Snitker has given him 10 starts in left field out of 14 games in Acuna’s absence and Culberson has hit .366 (15-for-47 with three doubles, two dramatic game-ending home runs – he started and ended the last homestand with walk-off homers – 10 RBIs and a .966 OPS in 12 games since May 27. The increased playing time and games with multiple at-bats helped him get his swing going.

“It’s a tough game -- most of the time it’s tough; sometimes it’s easy, it seems like,” said Culberson, the first Atlanta-era Braves player to have two pinch-hit walk-off homers in a season. “But yeah, it’s nice that it’s changed a little bit. But it’s still a long season, so I try to enjoy the good moments and learn from the rough ones and go from that.”

Acuna is recovering from knee and back injuries and could begin a minor-league rehab assignment this week with a possible return to the major league roster as soon as next week, though the Braves have given no timetable. 

When Acuna’s back, he’ll be the starter in left field again, but the increased playing time that Culberson is getting in his absence could help the utility man for the rest of the season. His performance and confidence levels have risen.

“Absolutely, I can get back into that mindset” of filling a pinch-hitting and backup role, Culberson said. “Because I know when he comes back he’s going to be out there. That’s their plan. And that’s OK because I know right now that I can do the part that I’m playing and try to help my team win, and when he comes back I’ll try to do the same thing off the bench or wherever they need me to be at. I’m just glad to be able to still come to this clubhouse and play ball.”

Since the first week of spring training teammates have offered unsolicited praise of Culberson for being what several have said is the ultimate teammate, a genuinely nice guy who cares about and tries to get to know everyone he plays with or comes into contact with on a daily basis.

He had a similar reputation with the Dodgers the past couple of seasons and the Rockies for three years before that, while doing at least some time in the minor leagues each of those five seasons. That was after spending most of six seasons in the Giants minor league system before his first big-league call.

The Braves got him in the five-player, financially motivated December trade that sent Matt Kemp to the Dodgers and brought veterans Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir, Adrian Gonzalez and Culberson to the Braves. Gonzalez was immediately released as part of the agreement so he would waive his no-trade clause to allow the deal to go through, and Kazmir was dumped late in spring training -- also not unexpected -- leaving the Braves with McCarthy, in the final year of his contract, and Culberson, the only player involved in the deal who figured to be a long-term part of the team.

Teammates wait for Charlie Culberson to cross home plate on one of his two walk-off homers last week.  (Associated Press)

Culberson has three more years of contractual control after this one. Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who knew Culberson well from Anthopoulos’ stint in the Dodgers’ front office, made it clear at the time of the deal that Culberson wasn’t just a throw-in. He considered Culberson to be a Gold Glove-caliber defender at shortstop who would be a strong backup to Dansby Swanson and could play several other positions in the infield and outfield.

With his performance in recent weeks, Culberson demonstrated why the Braves believe he could be a long-term piece of the team. Solid utility player, tremendous in the clubhouse and a penchant for big hits.

Braves slugger Freddie Freeman says pinch-hitting is perhaps the hardest job in baseball, and Culberson is one of only four major leaguers with multiple pinch-hit homers already this season. 

Culberson has done his best work in higher-leverage and run-producing situations. With runners on base, he’s hit .356 (16-for-45) with a .986 OPS, the second-highest average on the Braves behind only Freeman’s .417 (43-for-103). With runners in scoring position, Culberson has hit .360 (9-for-25) with a .945 OPS, the team’s second-highest average, again behind only Freeman’s .455 (25-for-55).

Through the frustrating two months and the recent spike in his production, Culberson has maintained his sunny disposition in the clubhouse and with fans.

“It’s just the attitude -- he’s the same guy every day, whether he gets three hits or not hits or he doesn’t play,” Braves reliever Peter Moylan said. “And that’s the hardest thing. You’re going to have guys that are moody, you’re going to have guys that have a bad day or whatever. But if you can be the same guy when you come into a clubhouse ...”

Culberson said of maintaining a positive attitude, “I think it means a lot. I’ve been up and down in the big leagues for six, seven years now. So I’ve had to try to learn how to cope with failures and getting sent down and coming up and different things, and try not to worry about success and failures as much and just try to enjoy the process and enjoy being here. So that’s just who I am, and if I can help other guys, you know, but them watching me – I’m never a look-at-me guy, but I try my best to be the same person, and if I can help someone else out, then great. Then I feel like I’ve done my job, too.

“Yeah, sometimes it’s not easy. But for me it’s just easier to try to be the same because I think for me it’s just too much of a roller coaster if you’re up and down (mentally) all the time and just worry too much. So I just try not to worry too much.”

Whether coincidence, the Georgia native is thriving in Cobb County: Culberson has hit .303 with two homers and an .858 OPS in 20 home games.

The Culbersons decided to make their permanent home in the Atlanta suburbs four years ago. And after a few years in Smyrna, they moved to a new home in Marietta last year that’s within 10-15 minutes of SunTrust Park. This was before he had any inkling he might be traded to the Braves.

There was serendipity, and Culberson hopes to make it last.

“We made that home before I was traded; we wanted to make it home,” he said. “But now being with the Braves it’s surreal. At first I’m like, man, obviously I want this to work out for myself, for my family, for friends. Like, this is a great situation. Right now obviously I’m enjoying it -- enjoying it for my family, for my wife and my kids.”

Their children are ages 5, 2 and 1. For the oldest, there were a lot of flights back and forth to Los Angeles in the past.

“My kids don’t know; they don’t really have an idea that, like, they’re able to stay at home,” he said. “They know that dad plays baseball, but they just see it as they’re going to the park and then going to their house. I hope we can keep it the same for a while.

“My oldest, I think, kind of gets it. She’s been on a ton of flights. Not having to put her on a plane this year has been pretty nice.”

And his wife, Sarah?

“She’s loved it,” Culberson said, smiling. “Yeah, we’re getting used to it, and hopefully that can be more of a normal thing. But for right now it’s been really nice.”

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