I WAS WATCHING the Braves play the New York Mets on my phone while cruising in mild traffic from Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta to Cobb County, Georgia, home of the Braves and a fantasy world of their own creation. My car was piloted by an amiable Jamaican woman, and we were discussing the dark storm clouds overhead when Charlie Culberson struck lightning.
Culberson's two-run walk-off shot against Seth Lugo sent the big crowd at SunTrust Park into a frenzy, and Culberson's teammates pounded him on the back and pulled on his jersey amid the group dance around home plate.
"Oh, did they win?" my driver asked. Her accent was sublime.
"Yep," I said. "Game-winning home run."
"Good for them," she said. She pulled into the driveway of my hotel, located on the edge of The Battery, the still-sparkling, mixed-use development that the Braves moved into and have lorded over since last season. It sits in a pocket of land between two major freeways, some woods and busy Cobb County Parkway, about 12 miles from downtown Atlanta. I did not step foot outside of The Battery until I departed nearly a week later. The Braves developed all of it, some on their own, some with partners. It's a self-contained village in a place that did not exist five years ago. Like I said, it's their fantasy land.
The dramatic win kicked off the biggest homestand for the Braves in at least four years. Atlanta entered the eight-games-in-seven-days challenge in first place in the National League East. But the division rival New York Mets were in for four games, hitting Atlanta on a runaway locomotive destined for oblivion. After New York limped away, the perennial NL East favorite Washington Nationals arrived.
Chances were that by the end of the week we would know a whole lot more about the group we've taken to calling the Baby Braves. Culberson's unlikely blast got things rolling, though that night Atlanta dropped a rain-delayed second game that didn't get started until after 10 p.m. ET.
Every season, teams emerge as contenders that we had not expected to emerge. That is a literal statement. During the divisional era, an average of 5.6 teams per season have added at least 10 wins to their total from the prior campaign. There is more than one team this season on track for such an improvement, but of those, perhaps the most compelling is the Atlanta Braves, who through Sunday were on pace for 92 wins. That would be a 20-game leap from last season. The last time Atlanta made a 20-game year-over-year jump was 1991, which kicked off one of the most successful eras any franchise has had in any sport.
The Baby Braves label is not a perfect fit. After all, not only is the current Atlanta roster a mix, but also much of its early success is due to breakout performances from players who have been around for a while. The Braves' average team age (28.7 when weighted for playing time) ranks 13th in baseball. Still, youth fuels this team -- of that there can be no doubt. At one point in May, the Braves had the three youngest players in the majors on their active roster. That, and its alliterative allure, made Baby Braves an acceptable enough moniker, even though the Baby Bombers label that has been hung on the New York Yankees strips it of any originality.
"All of [the veterans'] knowledge has been so good for us," reliever Dan Winkler said of the mix in the Atlanta clubhouse. "Then you bring guys like Ozzie [Albies] and [Ronald] Acuna, it's just been a great mesh of guys."
One of the not-Baby Braves is 39-year-old Australian reliever Peter Moylan, who returned to Atlanta this offseason. He broke into the majors with the Braves and played with the club until 2012 before departing as a free agent. He has had a firsthand look at both ends of the rebuild.
"It was shocking to see," Moylan said. "It was a completely different team from the time I left here and when I came back. You hear about young guys when they are coming through the system, but there is still an adjustment period when they get to the big leagues. I see the young talent we've got around this clubhouse, but there is a good group of older guys too. But these young guys we've got here are as good as I've seen."
The Braves are a team that knows where it's going, understands where it is and is all too cognizant of where it has been. The excitement in Cobb County is building. You can sense it in the air as you move through the pulsating Battery on a game day. You can also see it in Atlanta's rising attendance numbers.
The thing is, if not for some forward thinking by an executive with one of baseball's most glorious pasts, things might be very different.
LET'S FLASH BACK to 2013. The Braves won 96 games, the high point of a five-year stretch in which they had at least 86 wins each season. They won the NL East, their first division crown since Atlanta's epic streak of 14 straight first-place finishes came to an end in 2005. Yet all was not well.
That 2013 club had a different constitution than the dynasty Braves, who dominated with starting pitching and homegrown talent. Atlanta ranked 13th in rotation WAR that season but led the majors with a bullpen spearheaded by Craig Kimbrel. The roster had a nice internally developed young core in Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons, Kimbrel, Julio Teheran, Jason Heyward and Evan Gattis. But before that season, Baseball America ranked Atlanta 21st in prospect talent. The pipeline was running dry.
Meanwhile, the payroll was somewhere in the middle of the pack, as it had been all through the years since Liberty Media assumed control of the team in the mid-2000s. Yet there were some unsightly contracts on the books at the top of the roster. Free-agent splash Melvin Upton hit .184 in the first year of a five-year, $75.25 million contract. Dan Uggla was in the midst of a five-year, $62 million deal. He hit .179 in 2013, his last full season as a regular. Despite all the wins, the Braves exited the postseason quietly, losing to the Dodgers in a division series. Things were fraying.
"We signed too many high-priced free agents with big contracts," Braves executive John Schuerholz said. "They became burdensome over time, and we couldn't manage the operations of our baseball organization appropriately."
Before the 2014 season, the Braves locked up Freeman, Kimbrel and Simmons, indicating that they felt like they could stick in contention for a while. However, little was done to add to the mix from outside the organization. Atlanta got off to a good start in 2014, and as late as July 20, the Braves led the NL East and were 10 games over .500. But that fraying from 2013 got worse. The Braves came apart at the seams and went 25-39 to finish the season.
In stepped Schuerholz.
Schuerholz is one of the game's great executives, which is a safe thing to say about a man who was enshrined in the Hall of Fame last July. After overseeing some of the powerhouse Kansas City Royals teams of the 1980s, Schuerholz arrived in Atlanta in 1990 and has been a fixture ever since. Schuerholz was the architect of the dynasty Braves, cementing his place alongside execs such as Bill Veeck, Branch Rickey and Ban Johnson in Cooperstown. These days, his title is vice chairman emeritus, and he works out of a nifty office that looks out over SunTrust Park, a venue he had a large hand in creating.
That glorious epoch of the Braves might be enjoying its final chapter this year, with the induction of Chipper Jones into the Hall of Fame. He'll join Schuerholz in Cooperstown, along with his manager, Bobby Cox, and former teammates Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz. Jones is likely the last who will get in from those teams.
"That [era] was unique," Schuerholz said. "That likely won't happen again."
Not a dynasty, you say? If you're talking about the Braves from 1991 to 2005, think again. Sure, there was only one World Series championship in the stretch, which seems like a virtual mathematical impossibility. But there were those 14 straight division crowns (a streak that might have been interrupted had the 1994 lockout season played out) and five National League pennants. No NL team has ever won more games during a 15-year period than Atlanta did in those years. Only one title was a fluke, a product of the randomness of baseball's postseason.
After 2014, that was the organization Atlanta had to become again: one built on homegrown talent rather than big-money free agents.
"That was the flaw," Schuerholz said of his decision to pivot. "We got away from that theory, that operating philosophy, which if you stuck to that and you had the capital to support it, you were going to win, with the players that you know, that your scouts know and that you draft and develop. You keep the pipeline filled because you know the kind of guys you want, and we got them. Now we're back to doing it again."
As Atlanta endured its calamitous finish to the 2014 season, Schuerholz knew something had to change. He saw that the Braves had gotten away from their core strategies of outscouting and outdeveloping everyone else in an effort to build a sustainable power. A reset was in order. Out went general manager Frank Wren. In came veteran executive John Hart, new general manager John Coppolella and a revamped scouting and development staff. The task: Bring back the 1990s.
"It wasn't a new direction. It was the traditional direction we had traveled as an organization," Schuerholz said. "To build our organization and sustain our organization using homegrown players. We got away from that during one of the regimes that was running the baseball operations department. Their eye was off the ball, no pun attended, but that's what happened."
There would be no shortcuts. Before the 2015 season, Baseball America ranked the Braves 29th in its talent rankings, writing, "An organization once revered for its scouting and player development has seen its farm system go in the tank following a run of thin drafts and quick rises to the majors."
This was not the Braves way in the mind of Schuerholz.
"We had to go back down to bare steel and strip all of it away," Schuerholz said. "Go through the heartburn and heartache of trading away some very, very talented major league players who were making well over what they should be making. That was the determination, and it was supported from the very top on down. We knew we had to do it."
With that, Atlanta embarked on a three-year stretch in which the team lost 280 games. But the Braves' talent ranking at Baseball America progressed from that nadir of 29th to third in 2016 and first in each of the past two seasons. It was just what Schuerholz had envisioned.
"What was different [from the 1990s] is that we knew with certainty that if we did not make the tough decision to go down to the bare steel, we wouldn't be here where we are today," Schuerholz said. "It would have been delayed and put aside and rationalized."
THERE ARE NO team captains actively playing in baseball at the moment, with only injured Met David Wright currently holding the designation in a big league clubhouse. If we were to vote on the player most likely to be the next one to don the "C" on his uniform, it would probably be Freddie Freeman.
Through his career, Freeman has been almost criminally underrated. He doesn't turn 29 until September, but he's already in his ninth big league season. Since his first full season in 2011, Freeman ranks 16th among all position players in WAR. Yet he has never finished higher than fifth in MVP voting. He has played in just two All-Star Games. Whereas most of the players who were on the Braves when Freeman broke in are retired or on other teams, he was the one the front office decided to keep. That had to be flattering, but it also meant a lot of losing.
"It meant the world," Freeman said. "We made a commitment to each other after the 2013 season. To pick me, to believe in me, to help this team get back to the playoffs meant a lot. Obviously [Coppolella] isn't around anymore, but he went out of his way to make sure I knew what was going on. And he let me know I was the guy. I took that on my shoulders. I tried to play every single game. I respect the game and play it the right way, and I try to give that off into this clubhouse."
As Atlanta leaned into its rebuild, one by one, Freeman's teammates moved on, replaced first by transitional types and then, eventually, by the dynamic youngsters we've seen this season, including Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna Jr. Heyward was one of the first to go from the previous young core. Kimbrel, Gattis and Simmons were traded as well. The returns from those deals became key pieces of this year's breakout team, such as shortstop Dansby Swanson, defensive wizard Ender Inciarte and emerging starting pitchers Sean Newcomb and Mike Foltynewicz.
"The last few years, you'd get the sense that it might not be this year," Freeman said. "This year has a totally different feel. The young guys you heard about, that were talked about, they were actually in the big leagues or about to be in the big leagues. You saw them all in spring training, and there was just a different feel in our clubhouse. You just knew that it was close."
While that was unfolding, Freeman cemented his place as one of the great players in the long history of the Braves. He ranks 22nd in WAR in franchise history. Since the Braves moved to Atlanta, only four position players have more WAR for the franchise: Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, Hank Aaron and Dale Murphy. Since 1901, Freeman's 30.3 WAR ranks first among Braves who played at least half their games at first base. Freeman also cemented his place as a favorite of Braves fans, the go-to voice in the clubhouse and the face of his franchise.
"It was tough, just knowing that there was a chance that more than likely you weren't going to win the game that night," Freeman said. "You had guys coming into situations that weren't supposed to be in that situation, but they were getting their feet wet. It was definitely tough."
The Braves have started to draw attention in all of its variant forms. National media, sure, but more local media as well. They are more of a topic on sports radio. The stadium is fuller than it was last year and much fuller than it was in 2016, the last season at Turner Field. As the fishbowl grows more crowded, it could start to wear on a group that hasn't contended together. But manager Brian Snitker's mantra -- the "one day at a time" cliché -- is a consistent one, and it is echoed so frequently by his players that you can't help but believe that it's their rallying cry. It should serve them well as the spotlight brightens.
"It comes along with doing well. They'll be fine," Snitker said. "The biggest thing we can do is just live for today. Focus on the present. Today is the most important game we will play all year. As will tomorrow be."
That's a benefit of Atlanta's decision to retain a couple of core pieces in Freeman and Teheran, the only two players to remain throughout the rebuild. They can help steady the ship if complications arise among the kids as this year's playoff chase begins to intensify.
"It's huge," Snitker said. "The young players can just talk and be themselves. They sit in that clubhouse and batting cage and dugout and see how consistent those guys are. It's a great learning tool for a young player."
Just outside the Braves' clubhouse at SunTrust Park, there is a hallway that goes back to the training and dining areas. A wall in that hall, visible from the clubhouse, features a big mural depicting the exploits of the dynasty Braves, with Chipper Jones, Tom Glavine and Fred McGriff among those prominently depicted. Freeman is the one current Brave with a foot in that old era, having been teammates with Jones his first couple of seasons. That means, among everything else he does for the franchise, Freeman is the one who can best talk about what Atlanta baseball was like at its pinnacle, a place he hopes the team can reach again.
"It's definitely nice to see John Smoltz, to see Glavine," Freeman said. "Obviously, Chipper comes around. To be able to play with Chipper was huge for me, to see how he prepared and his whole mindset. To try to know how to hit like him and think like him because he's just above. But I took little things from him. Now when he comes around, if Ozzie is struggling, he's a switch-hitter, so why not talk to Chipper? The Braves were good for so long and right before all these guys got here."
This season, Freeman leads all first basemen in WAR. At 28, he's squarely in his prime but seems to keep getting better with each season, though his ascension last year was slowed by a broken wrist. Freeman once struck out twice for every walk he drew. This season, he has walked 39 times and struck out just 46 times. He's hitting .340/.430/.568 on the season and leads the league in hits, doubles, OPS, OPS+ and total bases. Even though he's a cleanup hitter and the player who usually hits behind him (Nick Markakis) is also having a terrific season, Freeman leads the league in intentional walks.
This season looks like Freeman's long overdue coming-out party. He has been hot lately and has opened up more than a one-win gap in WAR between him and all other NL position players. He's well off the pace of Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer, but nevertheless, if the Braves continue to push for a playoff spot, Freeman will likely be a top MVP candidate.
"Going up the leaderboards is great," Freeman said. "But that's not what I'm here for."
We were chatting in front of Freeman's locker, and he pointed at something over my shoulder. I turned and saw a 1995 Braves World Series championship banner hanging on the wall.
"There's only one of those up there right now," Freeman said. "I want to put one on the other side. That's a blank wall. That's all I'm here to do."
As for being underrated? Perhaps that's in the past. On Monday, Major League Baseball released its first results of this year's All-Star voting. Freeman led all NL players, coming in more than 100,000 votes ahead of second-place Nolan Arenado.
IT WAS FRIDAY during my week in Atlanta. The storms had come and gone throughout the week. Between them, the weather had been humid even by Atlanta standards. The Braves' stand had been going pretty well, with a 2-2 split with the Mets followed by a 4-2 win in the opener against Washington behind another sparkling outing from Newcomb.
Before the game that Friday, it was raining, so pregame on-field workouts and batting practice were clipped. As the rain died down and fans started to filter in from The Battery into the park, a documentary from MLB TV played on the scoreboard. It was called "Atlanta Rules," and it was all about the 1990s Braves, highlighted by shots of Chipper accepting the call last winter that notified him that he was going to Cooperstown.
Eventually, the game started with only an 11-minute delay. Atlanta was sending the hard-throwing Foltynewicz to the hill against the Nationals' Stephen Strasburg. If you hadn't been following the Braves this season, you might have glanced at that entry in the probables and decided it would be a mismatch. If so, you aren't paying attention to what the pitcher they call "Folty" has been doing lately.
"I think it's just a matter of slowing things down when I'm on the mound," Foltynewicz said. "In the past, when I'd get in trouble or things weren't going my way, I'd kind of speed things up or just try to throw as hard as I can. You see how that goes."
It was a regal evening for Braves fans. Folty matched Strasburg zero for zero until Atlanta broke through with a four-run seventh, capped by a three-run homer by Swanson. Foltynewicz went on to throw a two-hitter with 11 strikeouts in his first complete-game shutout as a big leaguer. His game score (93) was the highest by an Atlanta starter since Maddux in 2001.
"I love watching these guys play," Foltynewicz said of Atlanta's youthful infusion. "They are hungry, just like the rest of us. It's great that we got off to a good start. We've been playing great baseball, and we all believe in each other. Great team chemistry. We're just having a lot of fun right now."
You couldn't help but look around during that game and see Foltynewicz backed up by veterans Freeman and Markakis, as well as jewels of the building effort Swanson, Inciarte and Albies. When Foltynewicz blew one past Bryce Harper to finish the game, you couldn't help but feel that something special was coming together.
"You guys know that I love this place," Swanson said when asked about the ballpark atmosphere during the Washington series. "The fan base is very passionate. They are tremendous. It's so nice to have people here rooting us on and helping us win and almost expecting us to win. That's cool to have created that kind of mindset around here."
You hear similar things from other successful teams, such as the Cubs and the Astros over the past few years. There is a tremendous energy in the clubhouse, and players use words like "family" when they talk about their teammates.
"We all pull for each other," Inciarte said. "Americans, Latins, we love each other. Doesn't matter where we're from, we want to win together and carry this team to the playoffs."
Moylan echoed similar sentiments a couple of days later but added "Australians" to the list. Everyone I spoke to said they realized early that this season might be a little different.
"I think it was just a matter of time," said Culberson, who was acquired from the Dodgers over the winter. "There are some really good players over here. Honestly, I think once we got back home after spring training and the team was set, everyone went into the season mode, and that's where I saw the biggest change. It was evident what this team was all about."
Emerging teams have lots of great stories, and one of the better untold ones of the 2018 season is Winkler. After undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2014, Winkler suffered a terrifying fractured elbow while pitching early in the 2016 campaign. He missed nearly all of that year and thought his career might be over. This year, he has emerged as Atlanta's steadiest setup man, with 37 strikeouts in 26⅓ innings, a 0.76 WHIP and a 1.03 ERA. He, too, recognized quickly that something was different about this group.
"I said it during spring training," Winkler said. "There was just a different vibe in that clubhouse during spring training than there was the last three years I've been here. I don't know what it was. It was just that we were all having fun. We expected a lot out of this team, even though a lot of people weren't."
THE NEWEST MEMBER of this cast is perhaps its most important. That would be general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who is faced with the enviable challenge of turning an organization poised for big things into an organization actually doing big things.
Anthopoulos took over last fall after the scandal that resulted in Coppolella being banned from baseball and the Braves having to relinquish their rights to 13 prospects linked to the franchise's misdeeds in the international market. While the quantity of prospects lost sounds harrowing, as mentioned, the organization remained on top of the preseason prospect rankings. However he went about his work, you can't deny that Coppolella and his cohorts had an eye for talent.
"What the front office did, the previous regime, they shortened that rebuild," Freeman said. "It's kind of like the Astros and Royals a few years ago. No one expected them to win, and all of a sudden they won. It's hard for national writers to pick a team that hasn't done that well during the first few years of a rebuild, but then you have your guys that you know are going to be good, and they're coming along a lot quicker than people thought."
If you're Anthopoulos, a former American League Executive of the Year in his days with Toronto, what do you do? The urge to make an impact has to be strong, and after all, he is the guy who traded Noah Syndergaard when he was a Blue Jays prospect. Anthopoulos is not averse to speeding up the timeline. Nevertheless, once he had time to assess the talent on hand in his new gig, he realized that patience was the order of the day. More important, he knew a patient approach would be supported.
"One thing I was impressed by with [team chairman] Terry McGuirk was that, you see it all the time in sports, ownership talking about, 'Hey, we're going to rebuild and do this right. We understand that there is going to be pain,'" Anthopoulos said. "Then a year into it, two years into it, they can't take the pain anymore. To Terry's immense credit, he stayed the course.
"It makes it very easy in my situation to know that he has the stomach and the discipline as well to stay the course and do the right thing from a baseball standpoint. It wasn't a difficult decision. Let's sit back and do what we can. If we can add some resources and information, outstanding, but let's let these young guys play."
Anthopoulos freed up some long-term money over the winter in the trade that sent the revitalized Matt Kemp to the Dodgers, though it did raise this year's payroll higher than you'd expect for a rebuilding club. Beyond that, it was a mostly quiet winter from a transaction standpoint. Meanwhile, Anthopoulos worked to incorporate his philosophies, which utilize a lot more analytics than Braves regimes of the past have been known for.
That isn't always the easiest of transitions, but everyone seems to have bought in. The most obvious example among the players has been Markakis, who has increased his launch angle and tacked on more than 100 points of slugging percentage. But the real convert has been Snitker, a throwback type who tends to sit around after his pregame media chats just to talk baseball, even if it's with lowly reporters. He has been a part of the Braves organization since 1977. He has talked of being thrilled by the new information trickling down from the analytics department.
"Our players, our manager and our staff have been really receptive," Anthopoulos said. "Our manager has talked about being more prepared, that our players feel more prepared. That's great. It doesn't ensure winning, but at least you can put your head up and say that the talent is the talent, and what we can control in terms of preparation, it's a good thing. But make no mistake: It starts with talent."
As for Schuerholz, who for all his success would never be associated with the Moneyball school, he loves it. Anthopoulos' proven ability to work with analytics was a major selling point for him.
"He's meshed beautifully," Schuerholz said. "Because of his brilliance, because of his intellect, because of his sharp-mindedness and because of his interest and love in the game of baseball. He has the instincts when it comes to making judgments on the game of baseball while at the same time marrying that with his unique interest in analytics and sabermetrics -- and having that apply not just in player acquisition but in player improvement programs.
"It's a really unique blend that he has. In my opinion, where we're headed in major league baseball, we couldn't have found a better guy. We interviewed some very capable guys, but he was the guy that we believed to be the most appropriate to lead us forward, and he's done just that."
It's an interesting marriage: a franchise steeped with a time-proven method of building sustained winners and a general manager who comes to the organization outside of that lineage. Would Anthopoulos change the Braves, or would they change him?
Anthopoulos knows that the road that led the Braves here is one that has been built to last. He also knows that with more than six weeks left before the trade deadline, a lot can happen. It's possible that Atlanta's early season surge is more indicative of the better things to come than an actual push for this season's playoffs. However, with each passing week, Atlanta's success becomes harder to deny. If things stay this way into late July, Anthopoulos will be ready to pounce.
"It's too early to know," Anthopoulos said. "As we know, things can change fast. There could be injuries or drops in performance. If the trading deadline were tomorrow, yeah, we're right there, we're a contending team with a chance to do some things, and we have certain needs on June 1. Come the end of July, maybe we'll have an injury, or maybe we'll have a player emerge who can fill a hole. I will say this: I think if your players put you in position come July, whether that's early, mid or late, and they put you in position to be a contending team, you owe it to them to do what you can to improve the team."
WE REACHED SUNDAY, the last day of the homestand before the Braves departed for the West Coast. It had been a good week, but Sunday's finale would go a long way toward coloring how the stand would be viewed. After Washington took a 14-inning affair on Saturday, the Braves were 4-3 in those two crucial series.
With a win, Washington would leap over Atlanta for first place, but the game was less about that than about the latest measuring stick of how we assess these Braves as right-now contenders. The underlying numbers are encouraging enough. The run differential supports that 92-win pace and then some. Atlanta hasn't been overly reliant on situational success. The remaining schedule shapes up as one of baseball's easiest. The way this appears to be headed, the patience of the club and players such as Freeman the past few years will pay off.
"What we're doing now, what we've seen over the first two months, my belief was that would occur after the All-Star break," Schuerholz said. "That this blend of talent, this acquisition of young people that we got in those difficult, tough trades, they are doing it together. They are doing it in concert with other players we've gotten from other organizations. We continually analyze and evaluate and all of that to find out what we have to do to get better. But what's happened happened more quickly than I anticipated."
Most encouraging when spinning this forward is the youth of the players on the field, not to mention the ones waiting in the wings in the minors. Young players get better, said Captain Obvious, but they don't always get better in a linear fashion. Albies was one of baseball's best players early in the season, but he has been slumping of late with his hyper-aggressive approach at the plate. Acuna has been out with a knee injury, and he'll have to rediscover his stride when he returns. Newcomb has become one of the league's best lefties, but he has yet to play a full big league season. In each of these cases, the lack of a track record could be a problem. Or it could be the best thing about the makeup of this roster.
"You never know when it's going to pop or when they are going to get it," Snitker said. "It's always a good thing when you can say they're doing it sooner than later. But when you have young players who are talented, that's why you stay with them. You keep running them out there because the only way you're going to know, and the only way they are going to figure it out, is to get out there and go through it. We have a lot of young ones out there. When you have youthful talent, it's a really good thing."
What we have learned about the Braves is that they are a persistent bunch. They've scored more runs in the seventh inning or later than any other team except the Astros and Cubs. After Culberson hit that walk-off homer to open the homestand, Johan Camargo did the same thing the next day to again beat the Mets. While a flair for dramatic wins isn't the most stable of foundations for a rising team, it does tend to generate excitement.
That's why it hardly seemed unlikely when, in the bottom of the ninth inning of the homestand finale, Culberson emerged from the Atlanta dugout to pinch hit in a 2-2 game against Washington's Tanner Roark, who was making a rare relief appearance. Culberson, an emergent folk hero of sorts, had seven career homers at that moment. Three of them had been of the walk-off variety. To expect him to do it again was ridiculous, but of course he did. Again. Culberson hammered a Roark pitch into the left-field seats, sending the Braves on the road for what they like to call a "happy flight." As he rounded first base, Culberson looked over at his team's dugout and roared.
"I knew it was gone, and I was like, 'Man, it happened again,'" Culberson said. "Twice in one homestand. Not going to extras, and now we have a happy flight going to San Diego. It's just a good feeling, rallying around each other and picking each other up."
With Culberson's homers bookending the week, Atlanta went 5-3 on its biggest homestand since the rebuild began. While there is still a long way to go, that rebuild might have come together more quickly than anyone envisioned. For longtime Atlanta fans, it's a path that looks very familiar. This is why, back in 2014, the Hall of Famer Schuerholz realized the Braves needed to get back to being the Braves.
"It was tough losing 95, 96 games," Freeman said. "I got a lot more excited last year. You saw the light at the end of the tunnel, when you saw those guys that you heard about.
"[The Braves] picked me and traded everyone else. I signed here, and they gave me every opportunity. Obviously, you want to win every single year in the big leagues. That's what you want to do. But if I lose for three years to win for another 10 years, I'll take that. And I think we're set up pretty nicely right now."