- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 14, 2016

The boogeyman of Washington Nationals nightmares has his feet up in the visitor’s clubhouse. He’s a long-legged California kid who joined the Atlanta Braves in the second round of the draft in 2007. Freddie Freeman became a full-time player in 2011, when he was 21 years old. He began smashing the Nationals not long after.

Freeman is a hard sell as a villain. His mother died in 2000 because of skin cancer, so he teamed with the Melanoma Research Foundation to raise awareness. In March, his pregnant wife tossed him an exploding baseball to find out the gender of their coming child. Freeman made contact with the underhand toss from his wife, and a blue cloud burst into the air. The boy is expected in September.

When Freeman is informed about the dread surrounding his name each time he comes to Washington, he laughs. He had not heard that when he’s discussed locally on radio or television, his name is always announced with weariness.

“I have not,” Freeman said. “I know I’ve done pretty good against the Nationals over the last two years, but didn’t know they noticed.”

He laughs again.

Freeman chooses “pretty good” to describe math that is probably better suited by the term “ludicrous.” In the last two seasons, Freeman was hitting .434 against the Nationals with a .664 slugging percentage. He walks often, too. Washington’s vaunted rotation has immense trouble getting him out, hence the announcer and fan trepidation when he walks to the plate with seemingly 90 percent of his 6-foot-5 frame occupied by legs.

“They haven’t booed me or anything yet,” Freeman said. “I think when you play against one of the better teams, it kinds of brings the best out in you and I kind of think that’s what’s happened over the last few years. They’ve got a great pitching staff. Me being in the middle of the lineup, I just try to step up and get as many hits as I can. I seem to be hot at the right time coming into the Nationals.”

He finds the whole line of questioning amusing. Nationals starters do not.

Against Stephen Strasburg, Freeman is a career .387 hitter with 1.203 OPS. He’s hit .360 against Tanner Roark. Add .360 against the departed Jordan Zimmermann. When faced with left-handed Gio Gonzalez, Freeman’s average dips to .290, though he has slugged .613 in 31 at-bats. Going 0-for-3 against Gonzalez on Tuesday dropped Freeman’s average against him below .300, though he hit two deep fly balls, one that appeared to be victimized at the warning track in left field by an adamant spring wind.

“He’s always been a complication,” Gonzalez said. “If we can get anything for him to chase, it’s a bonus to us. Freddie’s such a patient hitter, such a well-balanced hitter, he always works the count. He’s dangerous. You got to make sure to stay away from that dynamite.”

Freeman has started slow this season. He’s hitting just .080 and had a day off on Thursday in the Braves‘ 6-2 loss. Of the eight games he has played, five had been against the Nationals. Despite the low average, Freeman is still on base 30.3 percent of the time. Nationals manager Dusty Baker instructed Max Scherzer to intentionally walk him Monday night. In his first at-bat in that game against Scherzer, he walked on four pitches. This was the result of homering off Scherzer in his first career at-bat against him in the April 4 opener for both teams. It was a welcome-to-the-club moment for Scherzer.

Freddie’s one of the most dangerous men in this league,” Baker said. “Freddie can hit. And, he has an idea. You’ve got to figure out what he’s trying to do. Sometimes, he’ll take you down the line, sometimes he’ll hit you to left field. His patience is being tested this year.”

The Braves were 0-9 after Thursday, one of two winless teams remaining in the majors. Batting in front of Freeman is the capable Nick Markakis. Behind him is the possibly capable Adonis Garcia, a 31-year-old Cuban import who made it to the majors last season.

Freeman’s success against the Nationals is not rooted in being a preparation freak. In a time of expansive information being available to players, he does not watch video. Instead, he deciphers the pitch and swings accordingly, though he’s not at the plate with no plan. Baker said a pitcher needs to pay attention to Freeman’s upper body. If he leans forward a bit, he’s looking to work the other way. Straight up, trying to make space to pull an inside pitch. Those things were personified against Gonzalez. Freeman hit a deep fly to left field, then a deep fly to right-center field in consecutive at-bats.

“If I see video and look at a pitch in that count and see what he threw, I’m going to expect him to throw it again,” Freeman said. “I just put my foot down and swing.”

That has been sufficient against the Nationals.


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