ATLANTA -- Freddie Freeman has tasted the euphoria of the postseason, the despair created by a late-season collapse and the hopelessness felt as he spent the past four seasons serving as the lingering cornerstone of a massive rebuilding process. So it's easy to understand why this year's journey with the
ATLANTA -- Freddie Freeman has tasted the euphoria of the postseason, the despair created by a late-season collapse and the hopelessness felt as he spent the past four seasons serving as the lingering cornerstone of a massive rebuilding process. So it's easy to understand why this year's journey with the Braves has been so special.
"When I came up, we were winning," Freeman said. "Then to go through four years of not winning, it makes you appreciate this kind of baseball again. It's fun. It really is. You shouldn't be pressing at all. This is what you work for, for six or seven months. For us to be in this situation this year, it's the greatest feeling there is."
Freeman helped create a feeling of relief as he extended his recent surge by homering during the three-hit performance he provided to back Touki Toussaint during Wednesday afternoon's 7-3 win over the Cardinals at SunTrust Park. The Braves still have some work to do. But they have now escaped the four-game losing streak that had heightened concerns about the possibility another Atlanta sports team was on the verge of collapsing.
"I don't know if must-win would have been the right term," Freeman said. "It was much needed. It just had felt different the past couple days coming around here. I thought today was a huge momentum boost for us."
With what was just their fifth win in their past 18 home games, the Braves reduced their magic number to six with 10 games to play. They own a 5 1/2-game lead in the National League East over the Phillies, who defeated the Mets, 4-0, on Wednesday night before heading to Atlanta for a four-game series.
Though they were unable to complete the sweep and claim a fourth straight win, the Cardinals will still enter Thursday's off-day with at least a half-game lead in the battle for the NL's second Wild Card spot.
When asked if this victory created a sigh of relief, Braves manager Brian Snitker admittedly said, "A little bit."
While Ronald Acuna Jr.'s strong second-half production stands as the primary reason the Braves have led the division since Aug. 13, Freeman remains the face of the franchise and the man capable of putting the team on his shoulders during this stretch run and the postseason that would follow.
Freeman was considered by many to be the favorite for the NL MVP Award before he hit .195 with one homer and a .584 OPS over a 22-game stretch from Aug. 16-Sept. 7. The All-Star first baseman has acknowledged what he might have lost from a personal standpoint during that stretch. But while hitting .405 (17-for-42) with two homers over his past 11 games, he has seemingly rounded into form just in time to once again be a difference-maker.
"I started doing a new drill in Arizona with [hitting coach Kevin Seitzer] and it's kind of locked me back in. It was just a little flip drill in the [batting] cage," Freeman said. "I've been feeling pretty good for the last couple weeks."
Freeman's opposite-field homer off Jack Flaherty provided an early advantage for Toussaint, who allowed two earned runs and five hits over 5 2/3 innings. The rookie right-hander has made just four starts, but he has produced a strong candidacy to be placed on the postseason roster as a long reliever or possibly the fourth starter.
Flaherty stands as a potential Game 1 starter for the Cardinals if they reach the postseason. But the right-hander certainly wasn't at his best as the Braves tagged him for five earned runs over just 4 2/3 innings. Tyler Flowers, who provided a late insurance run with a homer in the eighth, opened Atlanta's three-run fifth with a double and eventually scored on a wild pitch. Freeman delivered a two-out RBI single and helped account for another run when he stole second, allowing Ender Inciarte to score on the back end of the double steal.
"[Freeman] is getting the ball in the air and the ball is carrying," Snitker said. "That's always a good thing. That's a welcome sight if we can get him going."
MOMENT THAT MATTERED
Along with halting their losing streak, the Braves also avoided enduring yet another late-inning meltdown. But while it was good to see A.J. Minter escape a bases-loaded jam in the ninth, there was still reason to be concerned about the fact he created one. The rookie closer recorded a strike with just two of his first 11 pitches and then loaded the bases with consecutive one-out walks.
After receiving a visit from pitching coach Chuck Hernandez, Minter fooled Jose Martinez by throwing three straight changeups ahead of an 0-2 cutter that created a swing and miss. The young lefty ended the game with Paul DeJong's popup that Freeman snared.
"The guy over 90 percent of the time throws a cutter and hard slider," Martinez said. "Knowing they were facing a fastball hitter, they just tried something else. He threw changeups and one [cutter]. I wasn't expecting that at all. I could have had a better at-bat."
Going back to Aug. 18, when he blew a three-run lead with two outs and nobody on against the Rockies, Minter has surrendered 12 hits, issued five walks and allowed six earned runs over nine innings. An early clinch would at least provide him what might be some necessary rest at the end of his first full Major League season.
Freeman has now recorded a double-digit stolen-base total for the first time in his career. He is the fourth first baseman in Braves history to hit 20 homers and record 10 stolen bases in a season. The last to do so was Dale Murphy in 1978. Murphy played first base in 129 games that season and handled the catching duties in 21 games. The former Gold Glove Award winner didn't move to the outfield until 1980.
HE SAID IT
"We thought it was weird in April playing them so much, but I guess Major League Baseball did a nice job with the scheduling. We know what they've got and they're behind us. It's going to be a big matchup this weekend." -- Freeman, on the Braves playing seven of their final 10 games against the Phillies
Kevin Gausman will take the mound when the first-place Braves welcome the second-place Phillies to SunTrust Park on Thursday at 7:35 p.m. ET. These two teams will play four times this weekend in Atlanta and three more times next weekend in Philadelphia to close the regular season. Which club lays claim to the National League East title will be determined within this span. Gausman has struggled in his past two starts and now faces a Philadelphia club that tagged him for a season-high 12 hits while he was with the Orioles in July. Vince Velasquez will start the opener for the Phillies.
Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.