The last time Atlanta Braves utility player Charlie Culberson threw a pitch in a competitive game was in 2007.
Culberson was a senior pitcher and shortstop for Calhoun High School and took the mound in the state championship game that the Yellow Jackets wound up losing to Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School.
“I still remember that game,” he said. “I’d always told my managers on other teams that I could pitch, and (Braves bench coach) Walt (Weiss) and E.Y. (first base coach Eric Young) knew that I could pitch from when I was with them in Colorado.”
Culberson was given an opportunity to turn back the hands of time Friday.
The Braves were down to the Colorado Rockies 10-5 entering the ninth inning, and manager Brian Snitker called on Culberson to pitch. He only allowed one run in the ninth inning while reaching 94 mph on the radar gun at SunTrust Park.
“I was little nervous, but, more than anything, I didn’t want to embarrass myself,” Culberson said. “I wanted to throw strikes, and I wanted to throw it hard.”
Braves reliever A.J. Minter reliever was impressed but not surprised by Culberson’s skills on the mound.
“I wasn’t too surprised that he could pitch because he’s a pretty athletic guy,” Minter said. “Me and Sam Freeman typically long-toss every day, and Culberson was goofing around with some of the guys, and somebody bet him he that he couldn’t throw the ball into the stands. And sure enough, he did. I mean, this was from really far away. I knew then that he had a strong arm.”
Culberson was a member of the Rockies in 2013 and ’14, and his familiarity with the team made the outing slightly easier.
“I wanted to make sure I didn’t hit anybody, because a lot of those guys are my friends,” Culberson said. “It was tough, but it was also fun. I tried to get Charlie (Blackmon) to laugh, and he wouldn’t. That guy was always so serious.”
There was a moment of levity when the Rockies’ DJ LeMahieu of the Rockies got a hit off Culberson.
“I threw him a slider that he hit,” Culberson said. “When he got on first base, he motioned to me to ask if I threw him a slider and I said, ‘I tried, man.’”
The Braves are in the middle of a stretch where they are scheduled to play 48 games in 47 days. That led to the necessity of a position player being used as a pitcher.
It was the first time the Braves put on a position player in the mound since Jonny Gomes in a lopsided loss to the New York Yankees in 2015.
“That’s who Charlie has been for us all season,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “Whenever we need him, he’s there for us. That’s who he is. A guy like Charlie is worth his weight in gold. His versatility is more important than ever in today’s game.”
Starting pitchers used to go deeper in games a generation ago. Now, relievers take up more spots on the 25-man roster, and benches frequently only have four position players.
Culberson is hitting .318 in his last 67 games, and the Braves are 28-20 when Culberson starts.
“He’s a winning player,” Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “There’s a reason why I called him our MVP a couple of weeks ago. He does something big every time he plays.”
Culberson has played seven different defensive positions for the Braves this season. The only ones he has not played are catcher and center field.
Snitker did not rule out Culberson for either position as the season continues.
“I’d trust him anywhere on the field,” Snitker said. “He’s proven himself. I could see him playing center because of how he moves his feet. He’s already one of our emergency catchers, so, if we need him, we know we count on him.”
The Braves lost Friday, dropping their record to 68-53, but the team was still in first place in the NL East, and moments like Culberson’s pitching are why the team is still around.
“For Charlie to be willing to go out and do that for us is important,” Minter said. “It shows how much fight this team has. That inning was big and could help us down the road. We needed help and Charlie came through.”
Culberson was back to work as usual Saturday. Though he was not in the starting lineup, he did his usual infield work with Ron Washington and outfield work with Young.
Culberson was little sore, but ready to work as usual.
“I only threw 10 pitches in the game, and about 15 or so to warm up,” Culberson said. “I’m fine. I feel good and am ready to get back to handling business.”