Freeman - who else - is the guy Braves look to in the bubble

That's Freddie Freeman in the middle of the celebration after his walk-off single that beat Cincinnati in Game One of their wild card series.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”
Caption
That's Freddie Freeman in the middle of the celebration after his walk-off single that beat Cincinnati in Game One of their wild card series. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Used to be you’d point to the real stand-up guy in a clubhouse and declare, yeah, he’s the one I’d want in my foxhole.

Times and images change. Today, the Braves look at Freddie Freeman and note he’s the one they’d most want in their bubble.

That’s indeed the word from the bubble in Houston, where the Braves are preparing to begin their Division Series against the Miami Marlins Tuesday afternoon.

First, from shortstop Dansby Swanson Monday: “From the first game we played to the 60th game and the postseason, he has been tremendous. He does so much more than people realize and that’s saying a lot because people know that he does a lot.”

Then to manager Brian Snitker, who was asked to quantify exactly how much Freeman means to this franchise: “I don’t know that you can, that’s how big it is with his presence and what he means to our organization.”

Yes, Freeman is exactly the guy you want inside a bubble and leading the Braves into this next phase of the weirdest postseason ever. He only hit .167 in the two wild-card games against Cincinnati – one single in six at-bats, but a biggie that won Game One.

Of great immediate importance is that Freeman is much more whole than this time a year ago. Then, his elbow so troubled him that, Snitker said, “There were a couple times we weren’t sure 10 minutes before the game started whether or not he was going to be able to go – but he always managed to go.” That showed in a marked drop-off of production in the NLDS against St. Louis.

The complete Freeman is the one the Braves yearn to see as these playoffs ratchet up. They need their leader of sound mind and body and building off the peak he had the last month of the season, hitting .375 with eight home runs.

“I’m excited for him now that he’s healthy and feeling good able to compete at the level he wants to,” Snitker said.

Isn’t everyone?

Freeman’s in the process of writing a distinctly 2020 success story. It begins, much like the year itself, with COVID-19. Stricken with the virus shortly before baseball’s restart, Freeman spent the first week or so just trying to find his legs. How could he have thought from such a wobbly beginning to such a short season he could put together a very credible MVP claim?

“I didn’t know what was going to be in store for me this year. I’m just glad to be here. It’s been a special year so far, hopefully we can play for another three weeks,” he said.

You want quantifying? Here’s some quantifying: In this small sample size season, Freeman has led the National League in runs (51) and extra base hits (37). He was second in the league with a .341 average, 53 RBI, a .462 on-base percentage and .640 slugging percentage.

Monday it was announced the Braves first baseman was named the 2020 Baseball Digest/eBay MLB Player of the Year. A prelude, perhaps, to another more recognizable individual award to come.

That is the man eyeing the short fence in left (315 feet) at Minute Maid Park – it’s only slightly longer to right – and plotting some opposite field fun. “If you don’t hit it to center and can hit it down the lines you can get some easy home runs,” Freeman said. “Hopefully with their hard-pitching staff I’ll be able to catch a ball late and flip it into the seats in left. We’ll see.”

He’ll tell you that life in the bubble that baseball has tried to build around its playoff teams has begun well. The resort outside Houston where the Braves are staying may be a little far away from the park – a 40-minute drive – but it is filled with diversions from pinball to fishing poles to hot and cold-running food stations. His wife and little boy are with him, and they don’t require much. “All Charlie needs is a bat and a ball, we’re good over there,” he said.

Having gone through a tough battle with the virus, Freeman still sets an example by being the most conscientious mask-wearer on the squad. “They said I couldn’t get it (again) for three to four months. I’m on my three-month now,” he said. “I’m definitely going to take precautions."

And one of the friendliest players in the game, the guy who always has a good word for almost any foe who joins him at first base, said nothing changes in the postseason.

“It’s harder to get a hit in the postseason, so if you get a hit I’m going to tell you good job,” he said. "Especially with the pitching staff we got. I’m not changing.

“But as I’m being friendly, believe my I’m trying to beat you on the other side, I promise.”

Proof of that: He couldn’t help notice the backdrop in the interview room he spoke from in Houston Monday. The Braves may have won a playoff series for the first time since 2001 when they beat the Reds in a ginned up wild-card round. But that’s far from enough, Freeman noted.

“Behind us, it only says NLDS,” he said. “That’s where we lost the last couple years. We want to move on past the NLDs. I know we won a series, but this is still just the division series. We got some work to do.”

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