ARLINGTON, Texas – Freddie Freeman has been overlooked and underrated, taken for granted and forced to endure a lengthy rebuild that spanned the prime of his career.
But above all, his 11 years with the Atlanta Braves largely filled with All-Star appearances and hitting brilliance and an ambassadorial streak has been dogged by one professional characteristic.
For all his excellence, Freeman’s had the misfortune to toil for some very bad Atlanta Braves teams, and the handful that did reach the postseason were woefully unequipped to make it even one round.
Yet in this odd and truncated 2020 season, the greatest version of Freeman and a shutdown pitching staff have come together to place the 31-year-old slugger on the doorstep of the World Series.
For the second consecutive night in this National League Championship Series, Freeman broke up a scoreless game with a home run to chart the Braves on the right course, and yet another shutout effort from a young pitcher keyed an 8-7 victory at Globe Life Park.
The Braves are now 7-0 in this postseason, which looked like a fait accompli when they gradually pulled out to a 7-0 lead in Game 2. But they ended up hanging on, with manager Brian Snitker trotting out some of his lower-leverage relievers with such a big lead. It nearly backfired: Josh Tomlin, the last man in the bullpen, gave up a two-run homer to Max Muncy in the ninth and closer Mark Melancon an RBI triple to Cody Bellinger, who represented the tying run.
But Melancon retired A.J. Pollock on a grounder to third to end it.
Ultimately, Ozzie Albies' ninth-inning homer, meaningless at the time, was the difference-maker. Yet it's Freeman who launched the young Braves – with four Game 2 starters 23 or younger – into positions of strength each night.
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And in Tuesday night’s Game 2, the Braves continued their perfect romp through the postseason behind rookie Ian Anderson – who made his major league debut in August – hanging up zeroes on the Los Angeles Dodgers, as a top-to-bottom nails Braves pitching staff continues making history.
It added up to an 8-7 Braves victory, which came on the heels of a 5-1 Game 1 victory, and the aggregate score in this match belies the tension the Braves encountered before squeezing the life out of the Dodgers.
With future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw scratched due to back spasms, it fell to rookie Tony Gonsolin to battle Anderson in Game 2, and the 22-year-old threw three perfect innings at the Braves. But Ronald Acuña Jr. led off the fourth with a walk, putting the game back in Freeman’s hands.
Gonsolin tried to sneak a slider by Freeman on the inner half of the plate, and the swing that followed was a most comforting sight for Braves fans: Their four-time All-Star first baseman pulling his hands in and knifing the ball 10 rows deep in the right field stands.
It was strikingly similar to one night earlier, when Freeman, the second batter of the game, relieved whatever tension the Braves felt in their first NLCS since 1999 by ripping a Walker Buehler pitch a couple sections to the left of his Game 2 shot.
Both had the same, massive impact on the Braves: Taking the heat off a pair of young starters facing perhaps the only lineup in baseball deeper than Atlanta’s.
Freddie Freeman hit a two-run homer in the fourth inning. (Photo: Kevin Jairaj, USA TODAY Sports)
Game 1 winner Max Fried passed off to Anderson, who began his postseason career tossing 11 ⅔ shutout innings in earlier rounds against Cincinnati and Miami. The more dangerous and disciplined Dodgers proved vexing: Mookie Betts milked a nine-pitch leadoff walk in a 29-pitch first inning, and Anderson’s pitch count was up to 66 through three.
By the fourth inning, he issued his fifth walk and it was clearly time to empty the tank. Nursing a 2-0 lead, he fell behind Chris Taylor 2-1 before unleashing a changeup-fastball combo to punch him out.
He was done, and with that, joined Christy Mathewson as the only pitchers to begin their postseason careers with three starts of at least four innings and no runs allowed.
And this is where Freeman’s fortunes have turned.
Sure, the Braves were NL East champions in 2018 and ’19, too, but suffered four- and five-game NLDS defeats to the Dodgers and Cardinals, respectively. Four of those nine games were started by Mike Foltyniewicz, whose maddening inconsistency resulted in a minor league demotion in ’19 and a banishment to the club’s Alternate Training Site this year.
Dallas Keuchel, Freddy Garcia, Kris Medlen – all veterans on the downside who have taken the ball in Freeman’s playoff years.
This year is so different.
Fried, Anderson and Kyle Wright – Wednesday’s Game 3 starter – shut out their opponents in six of their seven starts. They’re backed by a bullpen that posted a 24 1/3-inning scoreless streak stretching from Game 1 of the Division Series to the seventh inning Tuesday night, when Corey Seager finally touched A.J. Minter for a three-run homer, awakening the Dodgers for their ultimately futile rally.
Yet, Freeman is never too far removed from any prosperity.
With the bullpen faced with covering five innings and nursing a 2-0 lead, he was in the middle of a four-run fifth, taking a Pedro Baez pitch and slapping it the other way for an RBI single and scoring on an Albies sacrifice fly.
Later, Albies capped the scoring with a home run into the Braves bullpen, caught by Mark Melancon – the second consecutive night that sequence occurred.
This one polished off the Braves’ seventh straight postseason win, their longest streak since 1995.
They won the World Series that year. They may get a similar shot this time, one Freeman has long awaited.
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