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2021 World Series

Freddie Freeman finally making his World Series debut

Braves first baseman had a tough year – until it wasn't

Freeman Home Run

Freddie Freeman of the Atlanta Braves hits the game-winning home run during Game 4 of the NL Division Series agains the Milwaukee Brewers on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021, at Truist Park in Atlanta. The Braves won 5-4, advancing to the NL Championship Series.

HOUSTON — When people in baseball talk about "Freddie," no one wonders whom they're referring to. Few players are as identifiable by their first name as Freddie Freeman.

He is the Atlanta Braves' friendly first baseman next door who greets all arrivals with a joke or a smile, the rare star who is so entrenched with his franchise that it is almost impossible to picture him in any other uniform.

He is familiar, forthcoming and fearlessly self-deprecating, the kind of guy who doesn't seem to have an intimidating bone in his body - until he steps into the batter's box. That may be the only place where friendly Freddie Freeman inspires abject fear, and the Houston Astros must be ready when they host Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday night.

But on June 4, steady Freddie Freeman was frustrated. In fact, he was fuming. He was hitting .226. Everything he hit hard seemed to find a glove.

Everyone tried to reassure him, but he couldn't really hear them. After one particularly frustrating game, Freeman spoke with his father, who recited numbers such as exit velocity and expected batting average to try to convince his son that the skid couldn't last forever.

"He was trying to give me all the numbers to make me feel better, being a dad," Freeman said then. "I'm just staring at him on the FaceTime, fuming through the phone because I don't want to hear that."

What he wanted was to see a three at the front of his batting average. But day by day, .300 seemed further and further from the realm of possibility. At times, even .250 seemed out of reach.

His Braves were watching their chances slip, too. Ace Mike Soroka had yet to pitch and ended up being out for the year. Catcher Travis d'Arnaud was in a multi-month injury absence. Ronald Acuña Jr. was having an MVP season that would soon end with a heartbreaking torn ACL. That this would be the year the Braves would break through … well, unlikely was an understatement.

By the last day of the regular season, Freeman was hitting .300 on the dot, and his Braves were National League East champions.

"Every single year you come into spring training expecting to get to the World Series. That's been my goal every single year," Freeman said. "You never self-doubt. You just see what this team has done the last four years, and you could see what was coming through those rebuild years, too, and you just get excited."

Maybe Freeman always believed, but he certainly wasn't happy during his skid. Teammates and coaches praise him as much for his talent as for his demeanor. They say he is as consistent as they come, as unwilling to let success change his approach as he is to let failure influence it. But in that early June stretch when nothing was working, even Freeman couldn't hide his frustration.

"What did everyone else say?" shortstop Dansby Swanson replied when asked what he saw from Freeman during those frustrating weeks, as if gauging how honest he should be.

"He was miserable," Swanson offered.

"It wasn't like a week. It wasn't like a 'that's baseball' thing," he added. "We were just bad. He wasn't great, either, and it wears on you. And it wore on him."

Bench coach Walt Weiss tried to keep the reigning MVP upbeat, tried not to add any negativity to whatever was spinning through Freeman's head.

"Jeez, Frederick, you should be hitting .330," Weiss would say when the 32-year-old returned to the dugout, trying to remind Freeman that he was too good to be that bad.

"He gets concerned when things aren't going well," Weiss said. "You start to wonder what's wrong. And I think he went there a little bit."

Hitting coach Kevin Seitzer said he told Freeman what everyone else was telling him. He looked at his batting average on balls in play (.222 as of June 4), saw his strikeouts weren't climbing, noticed the walk numbers were right where they would normally be.

"He knows when he's right, and he knows when he's off. And when he's off, well, he's not normal - put it that way," Seitzer said. "But I just told him to stay right where he was at."

Seitzer and Freeman have worked together since the 2015 season, so Seitzer knows exactly what drills to add to Freeman's dogged routine when issues emerge. But Seitzer said that even during his early-season slump, they only turned to those drills - such as the one they always do when Freeman's swing gets a little too long - two or three times. There was nothing to fix. Freeman just had to wait for the game to reward his talent, as it had for a decade.

That talent, which will be on display on the game's biggest stage for the first time, is almost universally regarded as some of the best baseball has to offer. Max Scherzer called Freeman "the best hitter I've had to face" and once said there were times during his Washington Nationals tenure when he would tell his manager before the seventh or eighth inning that he had enough left for a batter or two - but probably not enough to get Freeman a fourth time.

Former New York Mets left-hander Jerry Blevins tweeted that Freeman was hard to face because "His swing is unreadable," pointing to a hack Freeman took against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL Championship Series that looked late but ended with a ball pulled down into the corner.

"Takes away my ability to make adjustments between pitches," he wrote. "Unorthodox."

Seitzer called Freeman the best hitter he has ever coached because he can hit almost anything. In 2021, Freeman hit .339 against four-seam fastballs, .319 against sliders, .273 against curveballs and .323 against change-ups. He hit .306 against pitches on the inner third, .319 against pitches in the middle third and .270 against pitches on the outer third.

"Doesn't matter what pitch you throw - if you overexpose any one of your pitches, he can hit it out of the ballpark at will," Scherzer said during the NLCS. "Even if you throw a pretty good location, you locate it pretty good, that doesn't matter against him. He can still hit it out of the ballpark."

Since Freeman became an everyday player in 2011, just three first basemen have a higher on-base-plus-slugging percentage: Joey Votto, Paul Goldschmidt and Miguel Cabrera. Only Votto and Goldschmidt have more Wins Above Replacement, according to FanGraphs.

Since the first of the Braves' four consecutive division titles in 2018, as Freeman has watched a fresh core of stars emerge around him, no first baseman has been better in either category. And since June 5, no one in baseball hit better than Freeman, who batted .337 from that day until the end of the season - and watched his team rise with him.

"I knew it was just a matter of time," Seitzer said. "And once the hits started coming, the confidence got back to where it normally is. Then it was on."

Chelsea Janes is The Washington Post national baseball writer in sports. She was The Post's beat writer for the Washington Nationals from 2014 to 2018 and was a sports intern for The Post in 2013. She also previously covered the 2020 presidential campaign. Twitter: @chelsea_janes.

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