- NLDS Game 3 between the Braves and Dodgers will be remember for what was seen and what wasn't. Seen: Freddie Freeman enjoying a career highlight as he trekked around the bases. Unseen: How Kurt Suzuki navigated the ninth inning without a mound visit.
ATLANTA — Every great player deserves a signature moment, when the sum of his success can be captured in one highlight. One big memory as a proxy for a thousand smaller ones. Until Game 3 of the National League Division Series Sunday night, Freddie Freeman, a three-time All-Star and career .293 hitter, and one of the more overlooked rock-solid professional hitters in the game, had not lived such a moment.
It arrived on, of course, the first pitch he saw from Dodgers lefthander Alex Wood in the sixth inning, with tension and nerves here as thick as the humidity in August. The Braves had blown a five-run lead facing elimination. This wild chase scene of a ballgame was going to end in a 6-5 Braves’ win that–because of circumstances that became public only in the postgame clubhouse–was even far more perilous than it looked at home.
Freeman is the King of Ambush. Since 2011 he has 289 hits on first pitches. Only Jose Altuve has more. Major league hitters bat .339 against first pitches. Nice, but Freeman hits an absurd .412 over his career on them. Everybody knows it, and still Freeman destroys first pitches.
“He can still ambush,” Braves catcher Kurt Suzuki said, “because number one, he has incredible hand-eye coordination, and number two, he only ambushes in the strike zone. He’s not up there swinging wildly.”
Freeman also is very smart. As he prepared to hit against Wood, he flashed back to Game 1. Wood struck him out on a 1-2 breaking ball, an 82 mph knuckle curve that resembles a slider.
Freeman thought, “It’s a tie game. Sixth inning. In this spot he’s going to go right to his kill pitch.”
So Freeman sat on Wood’s breaking ball. Now, you have to understand how hard it is not just for a hitter to sit on a first-pitch breaking ball, but also to connect with it solidly. Pitchers threw 50,113 breaking balls on first pitches this year. Only 182 were hit for home runs–that’s four-tenths of one percent.
Wood threw his kill pitch, just as Freeman deduced. And Freeman killed it. Killed it so hard that rightfielder Yasiel Puig dropped his head and didn’t bother moving a step.
As Freeman circled the bases, you realized nobody deserved this moment in this ballpark more than Freeman. His time with the Braves dates back to Bobby Cox and the 2010 Braves. He is the only position player left from their last playoff team, in 2013. He endured four losing seasons after that, including 95, 93 and 90 losses the past three years. The game Sunday night was the first postseason game at the team’s two-year old ballpark, SunTrust Park, leaving Marlins Park in Miami as the only one of the 30 current parks never to host a postseason game.
So as the LED lights flickered above him and the crowd stood on its feet and cheered, with breath back in their lungs after the five-run lead went missing, Freeman floated around the bases in a circuit that was nine years in the making.
As he walked off the field, Freeman joked, “I feel like I aged a hundred years tonight.”
It is hard to find another ballplayer who is as admired and respected as Freeman, especially within his own clubhouse.
“His demeanor,” shortstop Charlie Culberson said, when asked the most impressive trait of Freeman. “It’s just the way he goes about his business. If he does well, he acts simply like he knows he’s supposed to do well. I feel like he takes everything in stride.”
What turned out to be a season-saving home run by Freeman would have meant nothing if not for the unseen madness of the ninth inning. Closer Arodys Vizcaino put the tying and go-ahead runs on base with no outs. That’s when Suzuki went out to the mound to talk with him about the sequence of signs and how to pitch to Max Muncy, the next batter. Pitching coach Chuck Hernandez joined them. Let the record show that this was the first postseason game ever in which a team used all of its allowable mound visits–with the cap of six per team in use this season for the first time.
Vizcaino fell behind Muncy 3-and-0 before recovering to strike him out. Then Vizcaino whiffed Manny Machado, but on a whirling slider that crossed up Suzuki, who was expecting a fastball. The pitch skittered to the backstop, sending both runners up a base. The next hitter was Brian Dozier.
“Time,” Suzuki said to home plate umpire Gary Cederstrom, as he took a step to the mound to talk to Vizcaino about the signs and how to pitch Dozier.
“No, no,” Cederstrom said, putting his arm out to stop him. “You can’t go out. You don’t have any mound visits.”
The rule states that any mound visit beyond six requires the pitcher to be replaced. (Brad Brach was throwing in the bullpen.) But umpires are instructed to do just as Cederstrom, the crew chief, did: head off an unintended pitching change by simply barring the catcher from going out there.
Now Suzuki was in a bind. The tying run was on third base. Vizcaino had just thrown one wild pitch by crossing him up. Suzuki could not make sure they were on the same page as far as the sequence of the signs, and they could not discuss how to pitch to Dozier.
“Holy cow,” Suzuki said. “Talk about pressure.”
He tried shouting to Vizcaino, “but my Spanish isn’t very good.”
He tried makeshift signals with his hands to let him know the sequence of signs they were using. On the bench, Braves catcher Tyler Flowers tried to help out with his own hand signals to Suzuki about what to call.
And then Suzuki put down signals and flat-out just hoped that Vizcaino, who throws a 98-mph fastball and an 86-mph slider, somehow didn’t kill him by throwing something different than he was expecting. And this all happened after more than three and half hours of pressure-packed baseball and Suzuki catching what would be 193 pitches from seven different pitchers.
“A lot of possibilities, a lot of pitches and a lot of laminated cards,” Suzuki said, referring to the mini scouting reports that get slipped into his arm band.
Vizcaino started with a fastball in for a called strike–what would turn out to be the best pitch Dozier would see. He threw a nasty two-seamer down and in that Dozier missed. At 0-and-2, Vizcaino threw a fastball off the plate away for a ball. So far, so good between the pitcher and catcher.
On the next pitch Suzuki called for a slider. He hoped Vizcaino got the signal. If Vizcaino threw another fastball at 97 when Suzuki was expecting a slider at 86, there’s no way Suzuki could have caught it. Even a strikeout–as happened with Machado–would have been a wild pitch, sending home the tying run.
Vizcaino was thinking the same as Suzuki. Dozier is a great fastball hitter. The 0-2 fastball was a setup pitch, a show fastball designed to either get him to chase or to set up the next pitch. Vizcaino could start his slider on the same plane as the fastball he just threw, only starting out over the plate. Dozier would commit to swinging, only to have the ball dart downward and take a split second longer to get there.
That’s exactly what happened. Pitcher and catcher thought alike. Dozier swung and missed. The Braves lived to play another day, which almost never happens around here these years.
Atlanta had lost five straight potential elimination games. Freeman had been 0-3 in win-or-go-home games. On this night, his night, he wouldn’t let it happen again.
“He’s our guy,” Suzuki said. “I hate to say it, but you just expect it from him. He does it all the time. Now we’ve got a little momentum. Now we’ve got a tomorrow.”
The game will be remembered for what was seen and what was unseen. Freeman’s home run is an all-time highlight for the franchise, no matter how this series turns out. Its franchise player christened the ballpark with its first postseason victory, and perhaps launching an era here, given this team’s young talent, of many more such nights.
Left unseen, which might make for a more entertaining story one day, was how Vizcaino and Suzuki navigated the ninth inning, like operating a ship at night in stormy seas with its controls out of commission. Somehow they made it to safe harbor.
“I am fried right now,” Suzuki said. “Fried.”