Already anxious for that first ground ball at third base, Freddie Freeman had to wait out an hour and 39-minute rain delay Saturday night in Charlotte and nine batters into the game before seeing a four-hopper off the bat of Everth Cabrera for his first live action at the hot corner in 10 years.
The first report was good: Freeman fielded the slow roller hit right to him cleanly and threw to first base for the third out of the second inning without event. He waved his glove, smiled and tipped his cap in response to the polite applause he drew from the BB&T Ballpark crowd on his way off the field.
Project third base is officially underway.
“They were happy that I actually fielded a ball and so was I,” said Freeman, who had no problem with the first grounder being such a “gimme.” “I’ll take that one for the first day.”
Freeman started his minor league rehabilitation with Triple-A Gwinnett with a lot more on his mind than just testing the left wrist he fractured May 17. While working his way back to the form that had all the makings of a National League MVP season, Freeman was playing his first game at third base since playing a handful there in rookie ball in 2007.
“Just catch it and throw it and just try not to embarrass myself,” Freeman had said, laying out his mindset before Saturday’s game. “I think if I make the routine plays, everything else is kind of gravy from there.”
He had only that one groundball opportunity through four innings in the field before the game went into a second rain delay at 10:09 p.m. and was ultimately suspended. Freeman will stick with his plan of resting on Sunday, doing only pre-game work in the batting cage and taking some groundballs on the field. He won’t play in the completion of the suspended game starting Sunday at 1:05 p.m. or the second game which will start 30 minutes afterward and go seven innings.
Freeman said his wrist held up fine at the plate, where he struck out and drew a walk in his first two plate appearances. The game was delayed a second time as he walked to the plate to lead off the fifth, and ultimately suspended.
“Wrist feels good,” he said. “It actually loosened up more and more as I kept going. I don’t know how it would have done if (I had tried to return after another) rain delay but right now I feel great.”
He wasn’t quite as happy with his results at the plate, at least not in the first at-bat anyway.
“I don’t think I swung at a strike my first at-bat,” Freeman said. “I was just swinging because I was just happy to be out there after six weeks. Once I got that one, and once I got my first ground ball, I think everything went away in my head and I was just having a good time.”
Freeman had a little fun in the field when he got a chance to play some “shortstop” standing alone on the left side of second base on a shift. Unfortunately Danny Hayes hit a ground ball where he was supposed to — the right side of the infield — and Freeman didn’t get to field a ground ball or try to turn a double play.
He said Gwinnett Braves shortstop Sean Kazmar helped move him into position if he needed to adjust, but once the pitch was thrown he felt comfortable preparing to field a ground ball.
“I was ready to go,” Freeman said. “Obviously it’s a different angle, a little bit different. I had to remember on a strikeout that he was going to throw the ball to me, throw downs I have to catch it and throw it back to the pitcher - those sorts of things. It all went well. Now on Monday I’ll be fine and I should be able to lock back in in at-bat No. 1.”
Freeman plans to play a full game in the series finale in Charlotte on Monday and continue the rehab assignment Tuesday when the team travels back to Gwinnett to play Norfolk.
From then on, Freeman’s next move will depend on how his wrist responds. If he doesn’t have any soreness, he’d like to play Wednesday in Gwinnett and then join the Braves in Washington for their July 6-9 series against the Nationals. If he does have soreness, he’ll likely rest for a few days and aim to rejoin the Braves after the All-Star break during the Diamondbacks series July 14-16.
Freeman showed just how serious he is about this on-the-fly conversion to third base when he decided to leave his first baseman’s glove behind. He packed only the new, smaller glove that Rawlings shipped him, one he’s spent the better part of two weeks pounding with his fist trying to break when he’s not taking ground balls.
He is determined to get acclimated to third base to allow the hot-hitting Matt Adams to stay in the Braves’ lineup at first base.
“A lot of people have said that I’m not going to be able to do it, ‘He should stay at first base,’” Freeman said. “But hopefully I can ease their minds and prove some people wrong going into this.”
Count one of the somewhat-skeptics his friend and former Braves third baseman Chipper Jones. Jones had an offseason to prepare for his move from shortstop to third base heading into his rookie season with the Braves in 1995, and that was while staying on the left side of the infield.
When asked if Jones thought he was crazy for making this move, Freeman said: “A little bit. I think probably a lot of people do. (But) I want to keep Matt Adams in the lineup. He’s been swinging it too good.”
Freeman said he and Jones talked for 30 minutes a week ago, going over angles and scenarios on charging plays and balls in the hole.
“It’s been 10 years,” said Freeman, who played third base and pitched in high school. “So I don’t know if he’s expecting much, but we’ll see if I can surprise him.”
Freeman said before Saturday’s game he knew he didn’t have to be “Nolan Arenado out there,” referring to the Colorado Rockies’ four-time Gold Glove third baseman.
He said Braves third base coach Ron Washington sent him on his way to his rehab assignment with a simple message.
“The last thing he told me was watch the ball from the pitcher into the glove,” Freeman said. “That’s the big thing, to follow the ball because if you’re watching the hitter, you’re going to be a tick behind because you’re not going to react fast enough. He repeated that about eight times before I got on my plane in San Diego, so that’s what I’m taking into tonight.”