When will Braves turn it on? Depends on when Freddie Freeman does

Braves manager Brian Snitker comments on the team's efforts in 6-4 win against Marlins that halted Atlanta's losing streak.

The first 39% of this Braves season has been one long search for signs and omens.

Seeking that one series that signals the turn-around has begun (I thought it was taking two-of-three from the Dodgers a week ago, only to watch the Braves go 2-4 from that point). Seeing in one good start perhaps the spark that will get this rotation on some type of consistent roll. Looking for enough quality at-bats, one after another, to declare that the home run isn’t the only offensive currency this team possesses.

Frankly, it’s getting a little frustrating trying to read the Braves tea leaves. It’s all so very confusing.

At this point, let’s just simplify. There is one sign, and one sign alone, to look for as proof that the Braves are first going to stick their snouts above .500 and start a serious challenge for the NL East: A Freddie Freeman who is smiling and hugging and who doesn’t look so much like he just swallowed a bug.

Given the makeup of this team, when Freeman is hitting and happy, it follows that the Braves should be happy, too. It is a simple equation when the reigning MVP is on one side of the equal sign.

Sunday’s so-very-badly needed 6-4 win in Miami, as well as breaking a four-game losing streak and momentarily reversing the puzzling curse of the Marlins, provided numerous hints of better days for the Braves.

Miami gifted them with two walks and a hit batter in the first inning and the Braves actually took advantage to score three runs. No home runs required.

Austin Riley broke out of an 0-for-17 funk with three hits, three RBI and his 12th home run of the season. Before our eyes, he is growing like ivy.

Starter Drew Smyly got through five innings to get a win on his 32nd birthday, reclaimed reliever Shane Greene threw a perfect sixth inning, striking out two, and Ender Inciarte threw in a home run for old time’s sake. Assuming the sore pectoral muscle that sidelined Ronald Acuna was but an annoyance, then Sunday was, indeed, a heartening day.

Still, there is one line in the box score I find most compelling. It’s the one next to Freeman’s name. And there, you’ll see he went 1-for-4 Sunday, that lone hit a double.

Braves 6, Marlins 4 (box score)

How will you really know when/if the Braves have begun turning the corner? It will be when Freeman leads them around that bend.

For the just concluded six-game road trip, Freeman hit .296 with a pair of homers. More like his old self, for the career .290 hitter has been languishing in the nether regions of the lower .200s this season.

His story this season has been framed as a baseball Greek tragedy, as the player tormented by baseball Gods who have decreed that his hard hits and good work lead to nothing.

Thanks to Freeman, we have become acquainted with a few boutique stats. Like batting average on balls in play, which Freeman entered Sunday at .235, more than 100 points below his career average. And expected batting average, based on the quality of contact, which argued that in a just world Freeman would be hitting over .300.

But, of course, the world doesn’t function like that. Or else we all would have our own “expected salary” stat that might somehow make us feel better when times are hard.

At the end of the day, you know what they call a hard-hit ball that’s caught? An out.

Braves starting pitcher Drew Smyly comments on his execution of pitches and the end of Atlanta's losing streak in Miami.

From the outside looking in, this seems to be wearing on Freeman (how could it not?). Translators of body language might note a distinct aura of frustration emanating from one of the game’s happiest warriors. The walks back to the dugout have taken on trudge tendencies. The camera is catching more shades of glum than normal.

Those closer to the situation say Freeman’s coping just fine.

“He’s the same guy whether he’s going really well or whatever it might be,” said Riley, adding that Freeman has schooled him on that trait. “He’s always even-keeled. Honestly, I’ve never seen a guy hit so many balls that hard that are outs. I feel for him.”

“Somebody’s going to pay for all these hard-hit balls because he’s going to get on a run,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said.

When that promised day comes — and the sooner the better — that will be the one true sign these Braves are poised to do what is expected of them. For when Freeman is smiling, it will make all the Braves world glad again.

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