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Freeman’s four hits lead Braves over Rays in home opener

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman went 4-for-5 with three RBIs, homering and providing the go-ahead run in season's home opener.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Freddie Freeman made sure there was at least one recognizable aspect of the Braves’ home opener.

Twenty-four hours after going 0-for-4 with four strikeouts, and leaving seven men on base, Freeman had a near perfect night Wednesday. The first baseman went 4-for-5 with three RBIs, homering and providing the go-ahead run in the Braves’ 7-4 win over the Rays.

“It was a different opening day,” Freeman said. “I still heard some people from the Omni, so that was nice. Saw (reporters) up in the box. There were some people here. Mr. Hank Aaron was here too, so you have to show off for Mr. Hank. All around, it was a good night.”

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Freeman’s success provided a small reminder of normalcy in an otherwise unprecedented evening (and season) at Truist Park. The Braves returned home to clever cardboard cutouts instead of 40,000 fervent fans. Background sound was limited to piped-in noise, blaring stadium music, press-box chatter and scattered yelling from spectators at the Omni, which overlooks the stadium.

A normal crowd would’ve had plenty worth reacting to: The Braves jumped out to a two-run second-inning lead on Freeman’s homer off former Braves righty Charlie Morton. Freeman gestured to Aaron and the executives in the box.

The game grew reckless from there. The Braves blew their advantage in the sixth, allowing three runs, before responding in the bottom of the frame with their own onslaught. They tacked on another pair in the seventh.

Aside from Freeman’s stellar night, Dansby Swanson had another two knocks. Ozzie Albies brought a run home on an infield hit. Marcell Ozuna continued his hitting display from the 4-hole. Mike Soroka pitched well – better than his line indicates – and mostly kept the Rays in the infield.

Normally, Truist Park would react obnoxiously to all the above sequences. Instead, the Braves celebrated amongst themselves – following health protocols – and were serenaded by slightly delayed piped-in crowd cheers and the ballpark’s usual pop music and sirens.

It all started with Freeman, who entered the day hitting .143 and ended it at .316. It’s been a long few weeks for the Braves’ All-Star, but on Wednesday, he finally looked right back at home.

“I truly believed I was going to be able to get off to a good start,” Freeman said. “After (Tuesday), I really started second guessing myself. I feel good. My body feels great. I knew it was just getting the reps of every single day, going up and down, nine innings every day. Even though I didn’t play well (Tuesday), just getting off my legs (as the designated hitter) on turf made me feel really good today. Little things like that are going to help.

“I’m not going to DH again this year. We don’t want that to happen again (laughs).”

Mark Melancon (left) celebrates closing out the 7-4 win against the Tampa Bay Rays with catcher Travis d’Arnaud in the home opener Wednesday, July 29, 2020, at Truist Park in Atlanta.
Mark Melancon (left) celebrates closing out the 7-4 win against the Tampa Bay Rays with catcher Travis d’Arnaud in the home opener Wednesday, July 29, 2020, at Truist Park in Atlanta.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

ExplorePhotos: Braves' 2020 home opener at Truist Park

Notes from Wednesday:

- Soroka allowed three runs (two earned) over 5-1/3 innings. He struck out five and walked three. Ultimately, the Braves’ young ace outpitched his line. After allowing a hit and walk in the first, Soroka retired nine consecutive hitters.

The Rays got their first run in the fifth inning. With two baserunners, Soroka had his cleat stick in the mound while in motion, causing him to deliver a wild pitch. Catcher Travis d’Arnaud scooped the ball and fired to third, attempting to get the baserunner, but the ball wound up in left field, resulting in a run.

Soroka stayed in the game without any physical issues. He faced three Rays in the sixth, allowing a single and walk before striking out Yoshi Tsutsugo and giving way to Darren O’Day.

“It was great, with the exception of the batter I walked in the sixth inning,” Soroka said. “I thought we were sharp from the get-go. We fell into a groove, really, and ate that groove up innings two through five. It was fun.”

- O’Day struggled following Soroka. He entered with two on and one out, allowing both runners and an additional Ray to score. He was charged with one run on two hits in 2/3 inning. The Braves are banking on O’Day in those situations as one of several experienced relievers in their bullpen.

- On the flip side, southpaw A.J. Minter was outstanding again. He pitched a perfect seventh, striking out two and finishing the inning with Yandy Diaz’s weak grounder. Minter has struck out five over 2-2/3 innings (three appearances).

The Braves need another reliable lefty, even when Will Smith returns. Minter’s re-emergence would be a pleasant surprise.

“He’s thrown really well in our camp and to start this thing off,” Snitker said. “That could be a huge shot in the arm for us getting him back to where he was. It’s very encouraging.”

- The Braves had a big sixth inning in response to the Rays’ three runs at the top of the frame. Swanson’s ground-rule double scored one. Ozzie Albies’ infield single plated another. Freeman delivered the go-ahead RBI with a single to center.

It was the fourth time this season the Braves scored three or more runs in an inning. They’ve had two three-run innings, a four-run inning and a five-run frame.

- Swanson has been the Braves’ best hitter early in the season. After two hits Wednesday, he is hitting .391 through the first six games. Swanson leads the team with eight RBIs.

- Ozuna hasn’t been far behind him. The Braves’ offseason acquisition has met expectations thus far, producing five extra-base hits through six games. He had two hits Wednesday, including a double.

The Braves sorely needed Ozuna to replicate a chunk of Josh Donaldson’s departed production. So far, he’s been a force in the middle of the lineup. Ozuna is 7-for-21 (.333) to start the season.

- The Braves squandered scoring opportunities in the first two frames. Ronald Acuna, who reached base on a hit by pitch to start the game, tried to score on Freddie Freeman’s double but was out at the plate. In the second inning, Austin Riley and Ender Inciarte struck out to leave two runners on base.

Despite the seven runs, the Braves still left opportunities on the table: They struck out 10 times and stranded 19 runners on base. Their 74 strikeouts lead the majors and are the most in franchise history through the first six games.

- d’Arnaud and fellow backstop Tyler Flowers missed the first five games after exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. Outside the throwing error, d’Arnaud had a solid debut against his former club. He went 1-for-3 with an RBI and run scored.

- The Braves and Rays will play their final regular-season meeting Thursday at Truist Park. Lefties Max Fried and Ryan Yarbrough will start. The Braves will see an American League East team again soon, hosting the Blue Jays for a three-game series next week to conclude a nine-game homestand.