Freddie Freeman Gets His Moment, Pushes Atlanta Into NLCS

There isn’t much missing from Freddie Freeman’s sterling career. He’s won an MVP, hit for the cycle, racked up 42 WAR, captured a pair of Silver Sluggers, and has already made five All-Star teams. That’s not quite enough for Cooperstown on its own, but he’s probably only a few more star caliber seasons away from a pretty good Hall of Fame case, and given that he’s only 32, he’s got time to pad his resume. With apologies to a criminally under-photographed snowmobile ride with Chipper Jones, the only thing missing from Freeman’s career has been an iconic moment.

No longer. In the eighth inning of a 4-4 tie in Tuesday’s NLDS Game 4, Freeman stepped to the plate against Josh Hader. Hader, of course, is the sport’s best relief pitcher and an absolute terror against lefties. He hadn’t given up a homer to a lefty all year, hadn’t surrendered a run since July, and hadn’t given the two previous hitters much of a chance to hit his nasty fastball/slider combo. On his first pitch to Freeman though, his bender caught too much plate and one chance was all that Freeman needed:

Milwaukee mustered a leadoff single in the ninth, but never got any closer to tying the game. Freeman’s late dinger ultimately clinched the series, and ensured the Braves wouldn’t rue a day that could have been defined by risky gambles and opportunities missed.

The drama started before the game, with Atlanta’s choice of starting pitcher. With all of the precautions clubs take with their hurlers, it’s a bit odd that starting on three days rest remains a common October practice. Particularly in 2021, when injuries have spiked and teams have painstakingly limited workloads following last year’s abbreviated campaign, starting on three days rest has a 0-to-60 flavor that seems misaligned with modern pitcher usage. And that’s without even getting into all that we know about short rest, and how it tends to soften a pitcher’s stuff and dampen their performance.

It was thus somewhat surprising that Brian Snitker chose to start Charlie Morton against Milwaukee. The right-hander is a postseason legend and he pitched brilliantly for six innings in Game 1. He’s also 37-years-old and has never started a game on short rest before (he did, of course, lock down Game 7 of the 2017 World Series four days after starting Game 4). Snitker himself got burned using this very strategy two years ago, when he sent Dallas Keuchel to the bump on short rest with a 2-1 series lead; he coughed up three homers in 3.1 innings in a game Atlanta eventually lost in extras. This is not to say Snitker was wrong to roll with his ace, or that starting Morton is analogous to throwing Keuchel. Just that, to borrow a line from Jeff Sullivan, when Snitker wrote Morton’s name in the lineup card, Morton’s name didn’t mean what it usually does.

Morton for his part didn’t look much worse for wear initially. His velocity was actually higher than normal in this outing, and while his spin rates were down a tad, it really was just a tad. Usually though, when a pitcher is tired, command is the first thing to go, and Morton’s command wavered on him in the fourth.

With two on and one out, Morton missed his spot badly twice to Omar Narváez. On the first occasion, a fastball meant for the outer half wound up just on the wrong side of his glove-side corner. The umpire gifted him strike two on that pitch, but he was less lucky on the next offering, a fastball he wanted to throw out of the zone that drifted over the plate. It was the same spot where Narváez doubled yesterday against Ian Anderson, and the catcher didn’t miss this one either, lacing it into left for a single. Guillermo Heredia (who started this game after Jorge Soler tested positive for COVID) nearly made an incredible throw to nail Avisaíl García at the plate, but close only counts in a couple of sports and baseball isn’t one of them:

After three days, 22 innings, and 500 gray hairs for Craig Counsell, the Brewers scored for a second time this series. Lorenzo Cain, who was only able to join the lineup after fastening his left arm to his shoulder with duct tape, followed with another single to make it 2-0.

For all that happened in the top of the frame, it’s actually the bottom of the fourth that would have had Braves fans howling all winter long if they’d lost. Atlanta scored twice on pinch-hitter Eddie Rosario’s bases loaded single, but the damage could have been so much worse. First, with nobody out and a man on first, Adam Duvall lofted a popup near the Brewers dugout. Narváez raced over, but appeared to slip slightly on the on-deck mat, which caused him to bobble and eventually drop the ball. But in a play reminiscent of Pete Rose’s catch in the 1980 World Series, Luis Urías played Johnny-on-the-spot and made a lunging catch after the second bobble:

Or did he? Replays showed the ball bouncing off of something and into the pocket of Urías’ mitt. The consensus on Twitter — and the broadcast — was that the ball hit the dirt before the third baseman could snag it. I’m not entirely convinced: I think it hit the very edge of the webbing before rolling back into the glove and I never saw a poof of dirt spring up, but you can judge for yourself:

In any case, the call on the field stood.

The second moment came a batter later and Urías was involved again. Dansby Swanson smoked a grounder down the line, and as Urías dove to his right, the ball appeared to take a bad hop. Somehow, the 24-year-old managed to keep his glove elevated to field it cleanly, and he got up and fired to second just in time to nab Rosario at second. Atlanta had tied the score but they were close to breaking the game wide open:

It wasn’t Atlanta’s first missed opportunity. In the second inning, Duvall added to his collection of baserunning blunders, galloping for home on Heredia’s soft fly to left, a ball that Christian Yelich caught without leaving his feet; Duvall was easily doubled off.

The Braves also could have gotten more in the fifth. Rowdy Tellez had given the Crew a 4-2 lead in the top half, but Atlanta loaded the bases with one out. An RBI grounder from Joc Pederson and a single from Travis d’Arnaud tied the game, but pinch-hitter Ehire Adrianza couldn’t extend the lead further.

It was thus left to Freeman in the eighth. He became just the fourth player to hit multiple homers against Hader, and his blast Tuesday evening will linger forever in the minds of all who attended. It’s a special thing when a player can build a relationship with a city that transcends the transactional connection that usually links fan and player. Freeman appears to have that kind of rapport with Atlanta’s fans, and he may have just elevated himself into the inner ring of Braves legends. In the minutes after the delirium of clinching the series passed, as the players hugged and smiled and donned their soon to be discarded celebratory caps, the crowd bellowed as one, not in celebration of its team but of its talisman: “FRED-DEE! FRED-DEE! FRED-DEE!”

For his part, Hader takes a tough loss in a season-ending game for the second time in three years. There’s no larger narrative here. Nobody in their right mind will claim that Hader can’t handle the pressure or that his stuff doesn’t play in the postseason. He absolutely diced the two hitters in front of Freeman, and induced a soft grounder right after. Even the greatest pitchers get beat sometimes, and for Hader and the Brewers, the tough luck here is that Juan Soto and Freddie Freeman have simply come through in the clutch at the worst time. There’s no solace in that for Milwaukee, of course. Baseball may be a wonderful game but it’s a fickle friend.

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1 year ago

My man, that was an ATV/4wheeler, not a Snowmobile. Bless your heart.

1 year ago
Reply to  DontBunt93

Chipper owning a snowmobile he uses like… once every 3 years would be VERY chipper.