ATLANTA — Maybe Luke Jackson wasn’t the right person to ask about the thrill and excitement the Braves felt as they ended their season’s prosperous first half with the 4-3 win that Charlie Culberson helped secure after the Marlins loaded the bases with nobody out in Sunday afternoon’s ninth inning at SunTrust Park.
“I don’t know if that was excitement,” Jackson said. “I need to get an EKG. I’m still in shock of the whole inning.”
As the Braves (54-37) spend the All-Star break resting and appreciating the six-game lead they own in the National League East, they still will likely feel some of the energy Culberson created when he significantly subdued the ninth-inning threat with a throw that seemed to be as clutch as any of his four career walk-off home runs.
“I told him it was almost better than one of his walk-offs,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “[It] probably felt just as good or better.”
Whether the Braves had won or lost, there was going to be a level of disbelief. The Marlins loaded the bases in the ninth with three straight singles. Jorge Alfaro got things started with a slow roller, and he eventually reached third base when a sacrifice bunt attempt by Yadiel Rivera landed in no man’s land on the back of the mound.
Suddenly the 4-0 lead the Braves had built with Josh Donaldson’s 200th career homer and Dallas Keuchel’s 7 1/3 strong innings was in jeopardy.
Atlanta’s win expectancy dropped from 96.9 percent to 84.3 percent when Garrett Cooper hit a three-run homer in the eighth against Chad Sobotka.
It dropped all the way down to 35.8 percent when Ramirez’s bunt loaded the bases in the ninth. But the FanGraphs’ formula must not have been accounting for the presence of “Charlie Clutch,” the nickname Culberson has earned over the past two seasons.
“It was one of those innings that was just haunted,” Snitker said. “It didn’t [look like] it would have a good ending the way it was starting. We needed a play like that to turn an inning like that around.”
While starting just four games this year, Culberson has primarily been used as a pinch-hitter and a late-inning defensive replacement, the role he filled when he went to left field in place of Austin Riley at the start of the eighth.
The 30-year-old utility man had played 29 games as an outfielder before this year, but he looked like a seasoned vet as he raced toward Neil Walker’s line drive and positioned his body just right before he unleashed a throw that led him to spin and fall to the outfield grass as the ball headed toward the plate.
“I knew with bases loaded and nobody out, they were going to send him home,” Culberson said. “Alfaro is a good runner. Honestly, it was kind of a blur for me.”
Culberson’s 91.7 mph throw hopped once and vaulted perfectly into the glove of catcher Brian McCann, who completed the double play by tagging Alfaro.
Marlins manager Don Mattingly objected during his postgame address about McCann’s positioning, despite the fact a replay review resulted in the umpires determining McCann did not violate the plate-blocking rule.
“I knew there was going to be a play,” McCann said. “Charlie has an unbelievable arm. It was just a matter of whether it was going to be accurate or not. It was right on the money. A one-hop that literally I didn’t have to move my glove. That’s what he does. This guy is Charlie Clutch.”
So did it feel like a walk-off home run?
“It would have felt like a walk-off if that had ended the game,” Culberson said.
Unfortunately for Jackson, his blood pressure continued to rise despite the fact he had suddenly gone from having the bases loaded with no outs to two on with two outs.
The home crowd that roared upon completion of the double play gasped when Curtis Granderson walked to load the bases just before Miguel Rojas’ liner landed just foul down the left-field line. Three pitches later, Rojas flied out to end the game.
“It’s just baseball sometimes,” Jackson said. “You make pitches and then you don’t make pitches. You get rewarded for some and don’t get rewarded for some. This game will really humble and surprise you.”
Having won 21 of their past 29 games, the Braves certainly head into the break feeling good. Donaldson has tallied 10 of his 17 homers over his past 25 games. Keuchel is seeming like a sound $13 million investment, as he’s looked much more like his Cy Young Award-winning self for his past two starts.
And the always comical and creative Jackson believes Culberson’s presence provides the Braves assistance from a higher power.
“Charlie Angels in the Outfield as always,” Jackson said. “I got a front-row view of that throw. It might have been the best throw I’ve ever seen.”
Following the All-Star break, the Braves launch the second half of their season with a three-game road swing at San Diego followed by a road trip to Milwaukee.
The Braves’ first home series in the second half is against the Nationals beginning July 18.