TORONTO – As much as the Braves needed a good, long outing from Sam Freeman on Tuesday, he probably needed it more. For peace of mind, confidence – whatever you want to call it.
He came through with his best outing in what has been an inconsistent season for the veteran left-hander following a career-best performance in 2017. Freeman pitched a season-high 2 1/3 innings – one out in the sixth and the entire seventh and eighth innings -- and retired all seven batters faced including four strikeouts.
The Braves won 11-4 in a game that became more one-sided after he left as Atlanta tacked on two runs in the ninth.
“That was huge,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said of Freeman’s work. “That was the best thing I can probably take out of that game was probably the fact that he could stay out there and throw his pitches. I think it was really good for him to get an extended outing like that. I think it’ll be really good for him to do that.”
Freeman agreed and had no hesitation when pitching coach Chuck Hernandez asked after the seventh inning how he felt, gauging whether he was ready to go back out for a third inning.
“I came in and he asked how I was feeling,” Freeman said. “I was like, ‘F it.’ I was glad to get that opportunity, man. That was good.”
No temptation to say, that’s enough for me tonight? Freeman scoffed. “No, man,” he said, “I don’t ever say that. Until they tell me I’m done, ride on. I like to pitch.”
Freeman got his ERA back under 4.00 (3.94) with the outing, which marked the 11th time he pitched at least two innings in 235 career major-league games and only the second time he didn’t allow a base runner in those situations.
He’s had two appearances of at least two innings this season, the other May 6 vs. the Giants when he allowed two hits and two walks in two scoreless innings. The only longer appearance in Freeman’s major league career came 13 months ago, also against the Blue Jays, whom he held scoreless for three innings while allowing three hits and one walk on May 18, 2017 at SunTrust Park.
He’ll turn 31 on Sunday and is in his seventh major league season, but Freeman still has spent more time in the minors (275 appearances) in his career and takes absolutely nothing for granted. Not a day goes by that he doesn’t feel grateful about being in the big leagues and aware of how quickly it could go away.
And for a guy who’s had to fight for everything he’s gotten in his career, an up-and-down season like he’s had in the first half can be especially difficult. Particularly after the breakthrough season he enjoyed in 2017. Being part of a Braves team that’s surpassed expectations so far has been the best aspect of the current season.
“The hiccups I’ve had have been tough pills to swallow, but just watching everybody else go out and do their thing, it’s been fun to watch,” he said. “It’s been good.”
But first place in the divison and the National League’s best record – 43-29 before Wednesday – don’t offset the personal disappointment that comes with a bad outing, he said.
“No, it’s agonizing, man,” Freeman said. “(Tuesday) was big. It just kind of reinforced the fact that that’s what you’re capable of. I think that was the biggest thing, that reminder, just showing what I can do.”
His 3.94 ERA would be his highest in a full season since his rookie year in 2012, and nearly 1 ½ runs higher than the 2.55 ERA he posted in 2017, although his 1.21 WHIP (walks-plus-hits per inning pitching) is actually lower than the 1.25 he finished with in 2017.
Freeman’s ERA mushroomed to a season-high 5.29 on April 23 following consecutive appearances in which he allowed two earned runs and three earned runs while recording a combined one out in those games. He whittled that down to 2.84 by recording 10 consecutive scoreless outings over the next four weeks.
But just as quickly as things turned around, he got back on the struggle train by posting a 7.56 ERA over his next 10 appearances from May 23 through Friday, when Freeman was charged with three hits and three runs in two-thirds of an inning in a loss against the Padres. He failed to convert a save opportunity in that game for the third consecutive time in a span of nine appearances.
After the Braves won the last two games of that Padres series to complete a 5-1 homestand and traveled to Toronto on Monday’s off day, Freeman was eager to get back on the mound. And after Peter Moylan entered in the fifth inning with the Braves ahead 8-4, induced an inning-ending ground-out with two runners on base and retired all three batters he faced, Snitker turned to Freeman with two out and Curtis Granderson up in the sixth.
Freeman struck him out and retired the next six as well.
“We needed that,” Moylan said Wednesday of their appearances the night before. “It’s nice for the two of us to contribute.”
Freeman’s appearance was his 35th in the Braves’ 72 games through Tuesday and he’s on pace for 78 appearances and 66 innings pitched after posting career-highs of 58 appearances and 60 innings in 2017. (With his Triple-A work included he had 67 appearances and 71 1/3 innings in 2017.)
In 2017 he didn’t make his season debut until May 5 and had only 16 appearances through the Braves’ first 72 games, then pitched in 42 of their last 90 games and posted a microscopic 0.40 ERA in 25 appearances during August and September, allowing just one earned run in 22 1/3 innings over those final two months.