Healthy and happy, Freddie Freeman hopes to overcome one more hurdle in 2020

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Braves slugger Freddie Freeman talks about the team entering this postseason following last year's disastrous exit.

It’s a different world than it was in mid-February, when the Braves reported to their new spring training complex in North Port, Florida. But amid all the change, the unforeseen and the unpredicted, Freddie Freeman’s proclamation still rings true.

“World Series or nothing,” Freeman said Feb. 17. “I think that’s every single year for us now.”

The Braves' All-Star first baseman had no idea what would follow. Less than a month later, MLB – along with the rest of society – would be shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. Weeks of lengthy, public negotiations between MLB and the players union made it seem that a season might never come to fruition.

When camp finally opened in early July, there was skepticism that baseball would even reach the two-week mark, forget the postseason. One of the earliest red flags was Freeman himself, when he tested positive as his teammates gathered for their first workouts.

Freeman missed almost the entirety of camp, battling a fever that peaked at 104.5, leading him to pray for his life while enduring intense aches and pains. Yet five days before opening day July 24, Freeman was cleared and rejoined the team.

He looked rusty at first, hitting .190 (8-for-42) across his first 13 games. When Freeman rediscovered his form, he scorched pitching for the remainder of the 60-game season. Freeman had a National League-best 18-game hitting streak from Aug. 14 to Sept. 4. He had a 33-game on-base streak from Aug. 11 to Sept. 18, which was the longest run in the majors.

The final numbers: Freeman hit .341/.462/.640 with 13 homers, 53 RBIs and 51 runs scored while playing all 60 games. He capped the season by winning player of the month for September, a month in which he hit .375/.496/.750 with eight homers and 32 RBIs, while also walking (20) more than striking out (14).

Perhaps the cherry on top of his MVP campaign was a game-winning homer in the 11th inning that clinched the No. 2 seed with two games remaining.

Freeman went from praying for his life July 3 to the MVP favorite Sept. 29, one day before his team – which won its third consecutive NL East title during the truncated campaign – hosts the Reds in a best-of-three wild-card round.

While the universe has been flipped upside down since Freeman cheerfully arrived in North Port, the World-Series-or-bust mantra still applies. Freeman is an 11-year veteran and four-time All-Star who hasn’t experienced even one postseason series victory. His franchise hasn’t done so since 2001, when Ronald Acuna was three years old and Chipper Jones was playing his age-29 season. This is the Braves' third try in as many years.

“More and more experience is going to be better,” Freeman said. “Obviously, the last couple years, I think we were just excited to be here in 2018, and last year we really thought we should’ve won that thing. It just didn’t happen. There’s a little chip on our shoulders. We all know nobody is picking us again. We haven’t been picked to win the division these three years, anyway, and we’ve done that. We’re excited. We’re ready.”

The 2019 Division Series stings the most. The Braves won 97 games and were a more talented team than the Cardinals. Freeman, who’d had a career season, was playing through bothersome bone spurs in his elbow. He struggled mightily in the series, including going 0-for-5 with three strikeouts and a double-play grounder in a crucial Game 4, when the Braves went 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position in a 5-4 loss that forced a Game 5, in which the team was eliminated in humiliating fashion.

Freeman had elbow surgery last winter, and his performance indicates he’s well past any issues. When he spoke with reporters Tuesday, he could smile and confidently say he was 100 percent. He preferred that to last October, when he was battered with questions about his elbow.

“It’s a lot different,” said Freeman, whose grin was felt through the mask covering half his face. “I feel great. There’s no pain. I just finished hitting. It’s been a great year physically after COVID. I haven’t had any aches or pains pretty much this whole season. I feel great, ready to go. Hopefully it’ll be a different story this year.”

Freeman is preparing for his fifth postseason appearance. His numbers thus far:

2012 wild-card game (lost to the Cardinals): 3-for-4 with a double; one walk, one strikeout

2013 NLDS (lost to the Dodgers): 5-for-16 with a double; one walk, four strikeouts

2018 NLDS (lost to the Dodgers): 4-for-16 with one homer and RBI; one walk, three strikeouts

2019 NLDS (lost to the Cardinals): 4-for-20 with one homer and one RBI; one walk, six strikeouts

Total: .286/.344/.446 with two homers, three doubles and two RBIs in 14 games. He’s struck out 14 times against four walks.

Freeman, of course, would take individual numbers below his average if the team was winning. That hasn’t yet been the case, and despite Freeman having a built-in excuse for last October, he won’t take it. He’s always said some variation of, “If I’m healthy enough to play, I need to perform.”

There aren’t any excuses this time at the plate. The Braves have arguably the best hitting team in team history. Freeman is in the midst of his greatest individual season, one that might result in the Braves' first MVP winner since Jones in 1999.

Freeman won’t need to be superman, even if he holds himself to such standard. Marcell Ozuna has been almost as spectacular and should get his share of MVP votes. Ozzie Albies and Acuna are two of the game’s most dynamic talents. Dansby Swanson, Adam Duvall, Travis d’Arnaud and others make it a deep, dangerous lineup that presents varying challenges for pitchers.

And the Braves will need such an offense to defeat the Reds, who boast an excellent rotation headlined by Cy Young favorite Trevor Bauer, who will start Game 1 on Wednesday. If the World Series is the goal, the Braves’ first step is taking two of three from Cincinnati this week.

Freeman believes he and his teammates are up to the task.

“This offense, from top to bottom, is incredibly hard to navigate,” he said. "They’re going to have to be on their A-game for every single pitch to every single hitter. Each hitter can take you deep, and we can beat you in so many different ways. It’s just a really, really hard to navigate. But it is true that good pitching is going to shut down good hitting. That’s just how it goes.

“But I think when you have to throw 100 to 110 pitches, which they’re probably going to have to do, and every single one is going to require your mentally A-plus game, you can tire real quickly. So hopefully they’ll make some mistakes, and we’ll be ready for those mistakes. They have a great pitching staff and we all know it. It’s going to be fun. Good offense vs. good pitching. Something has to give, so we’ll see what’s going to happen.”

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