ATLANTA -- Staring at the possibility of experiencing his final at-bat as a Braves player at Truist Park, Freddie Freeman slayed one of baseball’s nastiest pitchers and gave the city of Atlanta further reason to appreciate his greatness.
Freeman’s tiebreaking solo homer with two outs in the eighth inning off Josh Hader gave the Braves a 5-4 win over the Brewers in Game 4 of the National League Division Series on Tuesday night. The veteran first baseman’s opposite-field blast capped a three-hit night and secured Atlanta’s second straight trip to the NL Championship Series where they'll take on the Dodgers.
“That was so cool,” Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him that emotional before. Oh man. But who wouldn’t be emotional hitting a home run to send us to the NLCS? I’m so happy for him to come up in that big moment when we needed him most.”
Freeman jumped on a first-pitch slider and then watched it sail over the left-center-field fence. As he excitedly circled the bases, he experienced the thrill of being the first Braves player to hit a go-ahead homer in the eighth inning or later of a postseason clinching game.
“I had a lot of cool moments in my career, but I think that's going to top them all right there,” Freeman said. “Hopefully, that's not the last cool one.”
Countless Braves fans are hoping the same as they wait to learn whether Freeman will return next year after he likely hits the free-agent market at the end of this season.
Freeman will have a chance to create more great memories when the Braves play the Dodgers starting Saturday. This marks the second straight time Atlanta has advanced to this round, but this year was certainly better. Last year’s NLDS victory came against the Marlins within an empty Minute Maid Park in Houston.
“I was sitting there tonight trying to think if I remembered what it was like last year in Houston,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “I couldn’t remember it. I’ll never forget this. This has been unbelievable. The fans were amazing.”
An energized home crowd was treated to an entertaining and action-packed game. Charlie Morton started on short rest and began to show some fatigue while allowing a pair of runs in the fourth. Huascar Ynoa allowed the Brewers to produce two more runs in the fifth. But the Braves answered with two runs in the bottom of both frames to create the tie that still existed when Freeman strolled to the plate with two outs in the eighth.
Brewers manager Craig Counsell opted to use Hader in the eighth because Freeman was due up third. Saving the dominant closer until the ninth would have avoided the chance to create a left-on-left matchup, which Hader usually wins. Left-handed hitters produced a .376 OPS against the Milwaukee southpaw during the regular season this year, and the last lefty hitter to homer off Hader had coincidentally been Freeman’s best friend, Jason Heyward, on Sept. 12, 2020.
“It's two great players going up against each other,” Counsell said. “That's why we're here.”
Freeman had seen Hader strike out Eddie Rosario with a slider and then use three straight sliders to strike out Dansby Swanson for the second out of the eighth.
When Freeman hit a 10th-inning walk-off homer against Hader on May 18, 2019, he jumped on a fastball. This time, he was ready for what proved to be an elevated slider.
“I didn't know if he was going slider happy, but I just kind of looked up and away to keep me from swinging at the slider down and away, and luckily he threw one up there,” Freeman said.
Entering Tuesday (including the postseason), left-handed batters were 11-for-88 (.125) with one home run and 49 strikeouts against Hader’s slider. The only other left-handed batter to homer off Hader’s slider was the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger on April 21, 2019.
“He hit it and I watched the ball,” Snitker said. “It was like, ‘My God, he got it.’ I was distracted almost, just thinking about other things. I find myself, when I sit there and I focus on, ‘Boy, it would be nice if he hits one,’ it never happens. I try never to even go there.”
Freeman’s capability to deliver has been witnessed as he stands as the only MLB player (minimum 250 plate appearances every season) to produce a 130 OPS+ in each of the past nine seasons. He started this season slow and still ended up joining Hank Aaron, Chipper Jones, Eddie Mathews and Dale Murphy as the only players in Braves history to hit 30 homers with a .300 batting average in multiple seasons.
It’s hard to imagine Freeman wearing another uniform. But if this happens to have been his last great moment with the Braves, it’s one many will savor for a lifetime.
“This is what you dream of when you're a kid,” Freeman said. “You really do, hitting a homer to clinch a playoff [series]. For it to happen, it's kind of amazing. It really is.”