NEW YORK -- Mike Freeman doesn’t play every day for the Indians, but when manager Terry Francona gave him a chance to face the Yankees on Sunday -- starting him at third base in place of the red-hot Jose Ramirez -- the utility infielder made it count.
In his first at-bat against CC Sabathia -- making possibly his final start against his original club while returning from the injured list -- Freeman rocked a 1-1 slider deep to right-center, notching a three-run homer to cap off a four-run second inning for Cleveland.
That was the beginning of a breakout 3-for-4 day at the plate for Freeman, as he paved the way for the Indians’ 8-4 victory at Yankee Stadium. He also knocked a pair of leadoff doubles that led to three more runs for Cleveland, courtesy of Oscar Mercado's RBI single in the sixth and Mercado’s two-run homer in the eighth.
Those insurance runs came in handy when New York attempted a last-ditch rally in the bottom of the ninth, scoring two runs before closer Brad Hand shut the door. The Indians earned a series split with the American League East leaders, finishing a tough weekend by keeping pace with the Twins in the AL Central race.
“How about Mike Freeman?” Francona said. “[He] plays maybe once a week, every so often, and he gets a game where he has to face a lefty and he ends up being our most productive hitter. That’s kinda been the way he’s been all year for us, that true professional. When we say, ‘Stay ready’ -- that’s my definition. Everybody was thrilled for him.”
Freeman’s offensive performance backed a strong outing from Cleveland starter Mike Clevinger, who threw five shutout innings, allowing just three hits and striking out 10. The right-hander watched as Freeman helped provide the run support he would need to earn the victory -- upping his record to 6-0 since July 17.
“It’s incredibly impressive for him, having time off, not seeing pitches, to [then] step in,” Clevinger said. “It speaks volumes for him.”
Prior to the game, Francona said that Sunday had been planned as a scheduled off-day for Ramirez. Freeman, however, only found out the night before that he would be filling in for his team’s best hitter in the series. Ramirez has a career .370 batting average in 37 games against the Yankees -- his highest batting average against any AL opponent and the highest vs. New York among active players -- and he had gone 6-for-11 with three homers and seven RBIs in the first three games.
Freeman, meanwhile, had only appeared in the series at the tail end of Cleveland’s 19-5 blowout win in the opener. But Francona knew Ramirez could use two days of rest between the Yankees and Mets series on the team’s Big Apple road trip, so he put his trust in Freeman, who rewarded his manager’s confidence, jokingly saying after the game that he was “trying to do my best Jose Ramirez impression.”
“I feel like it’s just my mindset more than anything -- certainly it’s easier said than done to have the results.” Freeman said. “... But I think a lot of guys that are in my position, that’s the reason they say it’s one of the tougher things to do, because results aren’t always there. It’s different than guys who play every day because [they] have tomorrow. As a utility guy, it makes those days like today a little extra special to contribute and help the team win a game.”
For the 32-year-old journeyman -- who was drafted in the 11th round in 2010 and didn’t make his Major League debut until 2016 -- Sunday was extra special because it was also the first time he had ever played a full game at Yankee Stadium.
Before the game, Freeman said that he took a walk through Monument Park, looking in awe at all of the history surrounding him. His grandfather on his mother’s side helped him appreciate the sport from a young age, so it felt surreal to be standing in the midst of it while it was quiet and empty.
“It’s special when no one’s there,” Freeman said.
Now, he has his own little piece of history in the Bronx.