• Exclusives

    Healthy or Not, Freeman Stays Focused

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It was an innocent-enough comment in an interview during the dog days of August, one in which Freddie Freeman invoked images of Jim Mora standing behind that podium nearly 16 years ago.

    To jog your memory, Mora – then the coach of the Indianapolis Colts and the father of Jim Mora Jr., who guided the Atlanta Falcons to the cusp of a Super Bowl in early 2005 – answered a reporter’s question inquiring about his team reaching the AFC playoffs during a press conference in November 2001. Mora’s memorable response, complete with his high-pitched response to the “playoffs?” question, has long been played on sports talk shows and TV ever since.

    Which brings us to Freeman, the Atlanta Braves first baseman who thusly answered a question from an Atlanta media member before Tuesday’s 4-0 victory over the Seattle Mariners about the team’s goal for the remainder of a season, a campaign that finds the rebuilding Braves buried in the races for the National League East title and a NL wild card spot:

    1B Freddie Freeman enters play Wednesday batting .327 with 22 HR in 303 at-bats

    1B Freddie Freeman enters play Wednesday batting .327 with 22 HR in 303 at-bats

    “Playoffs. Until you’re eliminated, that should be your goal.”

    Let it be known, if there was any doubt in the matter, that Freddie Freeman comes to play.

    He played at a MVP-level until a pitch hit his left wrist in late May. Projected to miss 10 weeks, Freeman missed just seven. Not only did he get back sooner than expected, he returned to the other side of the infield, after he approached management to advocate putting him at third base – mostly because of the success Matt Adams enjoyed at the other corner of the diamond after Freeman’s injury.

    Fast forward to August. The Braves regained their senses – not because of Freeman’s play at the hot corner, which was better than many of us expected – and moved their franchise cornerstone back to his normal position. The road for Atlanta has been rocky since reaching .500 right after the All-Star break, a nadir that briefly piqued dreams of a stunning playoff run long since lost as the schedule and a lack of offense and shaky pitching derailed those far-fetched hopes.

    And yet, on this fourth Tuesday of August, here was Freeman, acknowledging that wrist of his is “80-to-85 percent” in his estimation. He will need the break provided by the offseason to heal fully the wrist. In a way, it is a shame that Aaron Loup’s pitch rode up and in and plunked off his wrist in May, because he was laying the foundation for one of the best individual seasons in Atlanta Braves history.

    Even with the wrist issues, there has not been much dropoff after Freeman’s return. If he had enough at-bats to qualify, Freeman would be in the top five in the National League in hitting. He likely would be closing in on 30 homers at this point. After finishing sixth in the NL MVP voting a season ago, Freeman certainly would be in the conversation for the award were it not for the time missed.

    But the Braves’ captain presses on. That label is applied by me, for if this were a hockey team (RIP Thrashers, and may the Atlanta Spirit Group burn in hell for selling out the franchise, but I digress), there is no doubt which player would wear the “C” on his sweater.

    Freddie Freeman's 1.048 OPS would lead all NL hitters. (Lacks at-bats needed to qualify)

    Freddie Freeman’s 1.048 OPS would lead all NL hitters. (Lacks at-bats needed to qualify)

    Freeman, with the wrist aching and his team miles out of playoff content, went out Tuesday and collected two hits against a Seattle team fighting for a wild-card spot. He extended his hitting streak to 11 games, raised his average to .327 and, through his words before the game and his actions after first pitch, further cemented his standing as the centerpiece of the greatest rebuild in Atlanta since Sherman rode through town.

    For all the great young pitching bubbling at or just below the surface – Lucas Sims showing yet more promise of a brighter day with six shutout innings Tuesday – and the position players who are sparking plenty of conversation – Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson in the middle of the major-league infield; outfielder Ronald Acuna continuing his destruction of Triple-A pitching – Freeman remains the linchpin.

    News that his wrist is not 100 percent caused plenty of angst amongst Braves fans. I for one took to Twitter to express my opinion that Freeman is too important to run out there for nine innings every day the rest of the way in a season that will end with a losing record. I’m old; I remember Bob Horner, the curly-haired promising third baseman in the 1980s whose career was derailed by wrist injuries. It makes me cringe to this day what he – and his team – may have accomplished had he stayed healthy.

    But seconds after the TV broadcast crew mentioned the wrist summation given by Freeman in the first inning, he lined an opposite-field single to start his evening. Freeman continues showing up for work and putting forth the effort one would expect from a guy trying to get his team into the playoffs. The captain is in place, and his focus is on October.

    That workman-like approach, that leadership, will serve these Braves well as they continue their development from rebuilding to relevance to championship contenders.

    —30—

     

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.