Adams becomes a complication for Braves — in a good way

Matt Adams gets a celebratory soaking after driving in a game-winning run against Pittsburgh at SunTrust Park. (Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
Matt Adams gets a celebratory soaking after driving in a game-winning run against Pittsburgh at SunTrust Park. (Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

If only Matt Adams hadn’t gone on his galoot-free diet and had reported to the Braves looking like he was smuggling grapefruit in his uniform.

Were only he the typical left-handed masher that he appears to be at first glance, mindlessly pumping baseballs into the shift and either hitting home runs or taking a seat.

Then we wouldn’t be going through all this hullabaloo right now. Freddie Freeman wouldn’t be taking grounders at the other corner of the diamond, volunteering to vacate his safe place for the good of the lineup. The front office wouldn’t be faced with a whole new set of hard choices about what to do with their prodigious new bat and a glove that through the years has been deployed grudgingly at best. The fan base wouldn’t have nearly as much to buzz about here at summer’s beginning.

The Braves darn sure wouldn’t be treading water nearly so neatly, practically making like the Russian synchronized swimming team since Freeman got hit in the wrist.

But, no, Adams had to show up in mid-May and get it all right.

“I can’t say enough about his impact,” manager Brian Snitker attested.

“He came in here and he didn’t try to be Freddie Freeman, that was the biggest thing,” Snitker said. “Him being himself, he’s allowed the other guys to not press and do too much. Consequently, we’ve done OK without Freddie. It’s hard when you lose your best player. These guys have done a great job of just kind of staying the course and doing what they’re capable of doing, not trying to do too much.”

As of mid-week, the Braves were 17-17 since their first baseman who was scaling MVP-like heights broke his wrist. Where calamity and pestilence had been predicted, a sense of competitive calm overtook the team.

Matt Adams being Matt Adams has had plenty to do with that. Acquired from St. Louis to plug the hole at first, he was hitting .294 with 11 home runs and a .993 OPS through his first 30 games as a Brave.

That on some level he could hit a baseball has never been an issue. Adams figured he could do that since the day he came to the plate in Little League, several hands higher and several inches wider than anyone else on the field, and no doubt making that poor kid on the mound reconsider soccer. “Yeah, I was always big for my grade,” he said. Still is, at 6-3, 230ish.

In college, he set career records back in collage at Slippery Rock that may stand as long as the library — a .454 batting average, .525 on-base percentage, .746 slugging percentage. Numbers so glaring that he couldn’t hide from every scout, even in a Division II program in western Pennsylvania. The Cardinals got around to him in the 23rd round of 2009.

Pretty much all along the way, labels began attaching themselves to Adams until he was covered up in little yellow sticky notes concerning all the things he was or couldn’t be.

One of the labels he didn’t mind, actually. It was the nickname hung upon him by a St. Louis big leaguer, Lance Berkman, when Adams, 30 pounds heavier and resisting the contours of an athlete, first made the scene. “Big City.” It’s a gross inaccuracy. From the hamlet of Philipsburg, Pa., (population 2,500) he’s about as city as a hitching post. But Berkman decided that there were too many hulks named “Big Country” in the world, and truth had to be sacrificed for originality.

It stuck. Then Adams began to take to it like another tattoo on his sleeve.

“I love it. Hope I keep it for the rest of my career,” Big City said.

At least it was better than other more mean-spirited ones that tended to attach to a player of his former girth, especially in the social media age. “Fat” Adams comes to mind, one of the crueler labels.

Then he met Pilates. Whatever that is, it worked over his body good.

Training with Pilates4Pros founder Kim Wallis in St. Louis over the winter, picking up some complimentary nutritional advice, Adams reported to spring with a flatter belly and a toned attitude. Where had that profile been all his life?

Obviously, one look during the beginnings of his career would tell you he wasn’t a workout commando. “I felt like before it was a chore,” he said.

But now: “I enjoy it. It was something I needed to do. And I fell in love with doing it because I was able to feel the result.”

He keeps a Pilates contraption in his Atlanta apartment. And stays in touch with the St. Louis-based Wallis through remote FaceTime sessions. And there’s always a weight to be lifted at the ballpark.

To all you who made sport of his former fleshy self, check out the “Men’s Fitness” feature on him earlier this year. Yeah, Big City is one of those certified “after” pictures meant to inspire the high body-mass masses. So, put that in your kale smoothie and drink it.

“Bat” Adams is more like it. His hitting was his ticket to the majors, but even then it came with label warnings.

“May not work against left-handed pitching.” (Career, he’s only hitting .212 vs. left-handers in 293 at-bats).

“Can cause anxiety when swinging for the fences.” (Well, he currently is working on a career-best .346 on-base percentage, indicating a modicum of bat and impulse control).

The Cardinals never could find a way to get comfortable with Adams on a full-time basis, often citing his deficiencies in the field. An experiment using him in left field in St. Louis lasted all of six games and ended with no one happy. Adams did catch in high school and a bit in college. And he continues to insist that with more time he could be an adequate outfielder.

Through it all, Adams just plugged along. “My whole life I’ve had people tell me I can’t play at a certain level — whether it’s college, minor league or (majors). I kind of let that fuel my drive to become better every day.”

Asked if he thought Adams could play another position, Snitker said, “I don’t know. He’s tried left field. If he’s not playing first you probably put him in the outfield somewhere. We’re going to explore all the options.”

Currently it’s the established Freeman who is contemplating a position switch to keep the new guy’s bat in the lineup at least short term. That might be the best compliment anyone in baseball has ever paid Adams.

And Adams tosses the laurels right back at Freeman. “It speaks volumes on the type of guy that he is. I think that just shows the confidence that he has and the confidence that the organization has. But nothing is set in stone,” he said.

It was just generally assumed that Adams was a brief solution, a temp worker until he could be traded for more needed assets. Which is exactly how it may all still turn out.

Yet here is a quiet guy who says he much prefers flying undetected creating such a stir. The Braves had no option but to play him every day. And with that, Adams said he has, “built some confidence and got everything where it needs to be and how it needs to feel.”

Adams seized that opportunity and played himself into being a legitimate conundrum. He has made nothing simple on the Braves once Freeman is fixed, presumably in a few more weeks. Just turned every supposition inside-out.

Hope he’s happy with himself.

For the record, he is.

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