Just as you’ll jot the wrong year on the first check you write after Jan. 1, Brian Snitker erred on his lineup card. “I had two ‘3s’ on it,” the Braves’ manager said, invoking baseball’s positional shorthand. “TP (bench coach Terry Pendleton) knew what I meant.”
Said Pendleton, the second-greatest ‘5’ in Atlanta Braves annals: “I knew what he meant.”
On the Fourth of July, the Braves’ longstanding ‘3’ moved to ‘5.’ Freddie Freeman, out with a broken wrist since May 17, returned to the majors playing a position that, until two weekend rehab starts in Charlotte, he’d never played as a professional. Freddie Freeman, cornerstone, was manning the hot corner at SunTrust Park.
The plan had been for Freeman to play third on the Fourth in a different suburban park – Triple-A Gwinnett’s Coolray Field. But Freeman texted Snitker late Monday, saying, “I’m good to go,” and that was that. To accommodate the bat of Matt Adams, whom the Cardinals sent here for a middling prospect three days after Freeman was lost, one of the very best players in baseball was upping sticks, as they say in England. And the move was, as we know, Freeman’s idea.
“I have all the optimism in the world,” Freeman said, speaking before Tuesday’s game against the best-in-baseball Astros. “This club is built for the long haul. We’ve got a veteran core mixed with some good young players, and we’re going to try to keep on rolling.”
They also have, if we’re judging just on batting prowess, an imposing everyday eight. Said Snitker of his edited-by-Pendleton lineup: “It’s pretty good. It’s something that gets your attention. That’s the reason we’re doing this.”
That lineup: Ender Inciarte, a newly minted All-Star in CF; Brandon Phillips, 2B; Freeman, 3B-not-1B; Matt Kemp, LF; Nick Markakis, RF; Matt Adams, 1B; Tyler Flowers, C, and Dansby Swanson, SS. Of those eight, all but the latter were hitting .286 or better. Not included: Johan Camargo, who has batted .276 in a nice turn at now-blocked third base, and Kurt Suzuki, the platoon catcher who hit two home runs in Oakland on Sunday.
Pendleton to Suzuki: “What does it say when a guy who hits two bombs doesn’t start the next game?”
Suzuki to Pendleton: “It says we’ve got a good team!”
Don’t look now, but the Braves we all figured would have another forgettable season while waiting for prospects to ripen hit the Fourth at 40-41. This rebuilding club was a half-game behind the newly imperial Cubs and a game in front of the always-good club that dealt Matt Adams for Juan Yepez.
The Braves began play Tuesday 8 ½ games behind the Nationals in the National League East and seven back of the Rockies, who hold the second wild card.Those aren’t trifling deficits, and the schedule ahead includes opponents who can actually play.
Still, this rotation has begun to coalesce – not coincidentally, Bartolo Colon was DFA’ed – and the bullpen is OK and the lineup again features Freeman. In June, the Braves were 12th among MLB teams is runs scored and team ERA, which tells us they’re no longer out of plumb. And they had that June without their best player.
The Braves were 24-20 sans Freeman, which beggars belief until you remember that this is baseball, where weird stuff happens. More weird stuff is at hand: The first base fixture has relocated, at least for the moment. Asked if Tuesday’s game felt something like a big-league debut, Freeman conceded it did. “I’ll have an uneasy feeling until I get that first ground ball,” he said.
As someone who’s on record as hating the notion of Freeman-at-third, those ground balls concern me. (Though Freeman handled his first chance, Alex Bregman’s grounder in the second, with aplomb.) The Braves have weakened themselves at both corners, and shaky defense can cost a team as many games as stellar hitting wins. I’m also of the belief that this shift mightn’t last long. There remains the chance that Adams could be traded by month’s end.
And yet: On our nation’s birthday, what once seemed unthinkable had become reality – Freddie Freeman at 5, as opposed to 3. His recovery had taken seven weeks, not the announced eight to 10. The season that was supposed to have gone south over those eight to 10 weeks had turned due north. A sub-mediocrity had clambered within sight of .500.
Playing third base was new. Batting third was not. His first time up, Freeman lined a single to center field. Seven weeks on the shelf and the guy’s still raking. (The rest of the night went less well: Freeman finished 1-for-4; Sean Newcomb had his first awful start; the Braves lost 16-4. As noted, the Astros are really, really good.)
On a personal note, I was a bit relieved at Freeman’s early return. On the night he’d been plunked by Aaron Loup in May, I’d spoken to him about the historic pace he was tracking. Before his first game back, I told him I’d felt as if I’d jinxed him.
“This can still be a good season,” he said. And so it can.