Baseball excitement is back, thanks to a new generation of Atlanta Braves.
From the start of the season, the Braves have battled for first place in the National League's Eastern Division against the similarly resurgent Philaelphia Phils, as old villains the Nationals and Mets have fallen away. The Nationals have revived their chances recently, and are playing the Braves in a crucial series that gives a postseason flair to August baseball.
The splendid first baseman Freddie Freeman is the only remnant from the last Braves playoffs team, dismembered for a long and tedious rebuilding.
The renovation project is paying off earlier than expected, with young phenoms Ronald Acuna, Ozzie Albies and Johan Camargo giving dash to the steady play of Freeman and veteran Nick Markakis, an old-style hitter defying the new baseball ethos of home runs or strikeouts.
Like great old Atlanta teams that won 14 straight division titles, these Braves give melodramatic thrills like an old-time movie serial. Each night, a new hero emerges, saving the team from peril.
While Freeman and his mates have been stellar, utility everyman Charlie Culberson most represents the team's spirit. Culberson has slugged several clutch home runs, including a game-tying blast against Nats ace Max Scherzer Tuesday night that set up the Braves' win. He's also played third, second, shortstop and left field, performing well at each.
After a mediocre first half of the season, center fielder Ender Inciarte displays new fire, stroking a game-winning triple Tuesday night.
Wise third base coach Ron Washington, who has mentored the young Braves, gave Inciarte counsel as he stood at third base after showing that a three-bagger can be more exciting than a home run. Former manager of the Texas Rangers, Washington also conducts fielding exercises that have improved the Braves' defense.
Along with Washington, the Braves have another former big league manager, bench coach Walt Weiss, who played with the Braves in their final glory years under Bobby Cox.
Manager Brian Snitker's story also resonates. A baseball lifer toiling for years in the Braves' minor league system, Snitker has proved the perfect calming influence on his young squad. He's more and more sure in his decisions on lineups and when to remove a pitcher.
I've come to enjoy Snitker's post-game press conferences. He speaks with calm serenity, exhibiting humor, baseball knowledge and easy-going command. His nickname, Snit, doesn't match the man. I would call him Skipper.