While those seeking an easy target for the Braves’ all-around stinkage choose to second-guess every decision by manager Fredi Gonzalez — which is sort of like blaming a collapsed hut of pine straw on the architect’s poor roof lines — it’s notable who’s at the center of the team’s on-field problems:
The one player who’s not supposed to be: Freddie Freeman.
“There’s always a thing about not having an offseason, but I’m not going to make excuses,” said Freeman, who was rolled in bubble wrap for an extended period as the Braves sought to get his problematic right hand fully healed. “I had a whole spring training to get ready.”
“Well, yeah. Except for the 0-for-20 I ended with.”
Only a slight overstatement. Freeman was 0-for-17 when the Braves broke camp. But sometimes exhibition woes provide accurate foreshadowing. Freeman is batting .163 with a team-leading 16 strikeouts. There are 13 Braves with higher batting averages. Two of them are pitchers.
This is somebody who entered the season with career-season averages of .285, 21 homers and 85 RBIs. But through 15 games, Freeman has one homer and four RBIs, and he put the punctuation on Thursday’s 2-1 loss to the Los Angeles with a lazy fly out to center field, as the potential tying run stood at third base. (He’s now 5-for-21, or .238, with runners on base.)
This isn’t meant to put the Braves’ 4-11 start on Freeman’s shoulders. The record is the doing of the front office, which wrote off the 2016 season with almost every offseason transaction, and ownership, Liberty Media, which views their pro sports asset as “a fairly major real estate business.” (So come on out to the ballpark, everybody, and cheer on the commercial real estate.)
But Freeman needs to be the exception on this block. He’s their best player. That in itself isn’t a great compliment, but he’s a player almost every team in the majors would love to have and trade for. To this point, the Braves have resisted the temptation to move him, even if this season is a lost cause and next season may not be that much better.
If the Braves were a 25-man band, Freeman was expected to be the really good guitar player sandwiched between the line of bad tuba players. But he has been as miserable as the rest of them. Or worse.
He said the problem is he’s not “loading” at the plate, ball-speak for not getting his foot down and in position to swing fast enough. He has one of the nicest, cleanest swings in the game, and as he said, “There’s only a couple of things that can go wrong, and this is it. I’m not catching up to anything. I got a hit (Friday to lead off the sixth inning), but I would’ve rather get it in the 10th inning.”
It was better than Wednesday. Freeman went 0-for-5 with four strikeouts, including three consecutive with men on base. But he’s well short of where he needs to be. The season unfolded with opponents often pitching around Freeman as expected (he has a team-high 10 walks), but now they’re not even doing that much.
“This game humbles you,” he said.
He needed humbling?
“Not really. But inside you want to be a cocky and arrogant. Even hitting .160, I have that feeling I’m going to get a hit every single time. Baseball has a way of letting you know that’s not going to happen. All you can do it keep putting the work in and hopefully the hits will come.”
Gonzalez, who took the road less-traveled last week and sat Freeman for a game, believes his first baseman is “just a tick off. … I was watching him the swing the bat in Miami, and he’s right there. He’s not that far away any more. When it comes, it’ll come in bunches.”
For now, the losses come in bunches. The Braves wasted a fine start by rookie Matt Wisler (four hits, one unearned run allowed in 6 2/3 innings) and touched the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw for 10 hits, but pushed only one around the bases.
This is the way it will go in 2016. Sometimes the losses will be one-sided. Sometimes the games will be close. When they’re close, Freeman has to be the one to deliver because this isn’t a roster loaded with strong resumes.
“It’s been a rough 15 games, so hopefully I’ll get there soon,” he said.
It’s April, and it already seems like a long season.
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