Ender Inciarte leaves fingerprints all over Braves’ first game at SunTrust Park

With his third home run of the season, Ender Inciarte is just one away from his 2016 HR total after just nine games.
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

ATLANTA — As far as first pitches go, it was headed toward innocuous. A 92-mph four seam fastball from Julio Teheran that the Padres’ Manuel Margo skied into deep center field.

One pitch, one out to open up the Braves’ new home, SunTrust Park and the sprawling destination around it. But it didn’t get truly memorable until after, as center fielder Ender Inciarte pulled the ball out of his glove, broke into a massive smile and kissed the ball before throwing it back.

That was only the beginning of the firsts that Inciarte, the Braves’ Gold Glove-winning outfielder, would deliver in a 5-2 win Friday.

So what will stick with Inciarte from this night? That first out? The first hit? The first run? The first home run?

“Probably everything,” he said. “… It’s going to be for sure a special night for me and a lot of people.”

Jhoulys Chacin threw the lead-off man a changeup on a 1-2 count in the first inning and Inciarte hit a soft ground that drove Ryan Schimpf toward third base, but the looping throw to first was too late as Inciarte legged out a single, the park’s first hit. Then, two doubles later — via Freddie Freeman to center and Nick Markakis to right — the first run at SunTrust also belonged to Inciarte.

But the biggest blow of his night came in the sixth, a two-run line drive home run on a 3-1 count that Inciarte sent into right field. It was his third of the season, all of which have come in the last two games all to himself.

“I’m not going to lie, I had a good feeling about tonight,” Inciarte said. “Once I got to 3-0 count, I was ready to swing. I knew I had to take a strike, but I was going to swing hard. I did and I got the good result.”

The Braves have now broken in three different parks in Atlanta, and — while the opportunities to do so are obviously limited — only Inciarte owns the breakthrough base knock, run and home run.

When the Braves played their first game at Atlanta Stadium — later dubbed Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium — on April 12, 1966, it was the Pirates’ Gene Alley that broke through for the first hit in Pittsburgh’s 3-2 win. The inaugural run came via Atlanta’s Joe Torre, a solo home run.

Likewise, when the Braves opened Turner Field on April 4, 1997, Chipper Jones had the first hit — a single — and the scoring was broken in by a home run, via Atlanta’s Michael Tucker as the Braves beat the Cubs 5-4.

From a macro view, the 2 for 4 night was another positive offensive April sign for a player who have been a notoriously slow starter.

Over the past six games, Inciarte is hitting .285 with four extra-base hits and four runs scored. This, after posting an average wRC+ of 62 in the first half of seasons and 117 in the second during his first three MLB seasons.

Those long balls are of special interest given that Inciarte hit just four all of last season in 418 at-bats and he’s one away from that after just nine games. Of course, the placement of said home runs hasn’t been surprising. All of Inciarte’s career home runs have been to right field, exactly where he parked Craig Stammen’s offering Friday.

“I was just telling Matt (Kemp), ‘Hey, man, you better get ready quick, because I’m up now,'” Inciarte joked. “It’s happening right now, but it’s not like I’m trying to hit home runs. I’m just trying to put the right swing on the right pitch. I’ve been able to do it.”

Arguably the National League’s best center fielder with 61 defensive runs saved the past three-plus season — trailing only the Rays’ Kevin Kiermaier (80) and Cubs’ Jason Heyward (68) among all outfielders — Inciarte put together a career second half of 2016. He hit .341/.396/.440 after the break with a 128 tOPS+.

A .152 average with five hits in his first 33 at-bats may have raised eyebrows and concerns if he could build off that potential breakthrough. It’s the whole, ‘when will the bat catch up with the glove,’ talk we’ve heard with wth likes of Heyward and Andrelton Simmons.

Over the last 80 games, Inciarte seems to be making the case that he’s put those questions aside, and strengthened it with a power surge to open 2017.

But taken from the micro vantage point, on a night of firsts among the season of them, Inciarte made his mark on SunTrust Park, punctuating it by making the final out too on a Luis Sardians pop out.

“I wasn’t thinking about that … but it’s just a special night that I’m going to be able to remember,” he said.

Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney and Facebook. His books, ‘Tales from the Atlanta Braves Dugout: A Collection of the Greatest Braves Stories Ever Told,’ and ‘The Heisman Trophy: The Story of an American Icon and Its Winners.’ are now available.