Freeman lifts streaking Braves with walk-off HR

Young Braves contribute early, but veteran calls it in 10th

May 19th, 2019

ATLANTA -- As digested the thrill he felt after his fourth career walk-off homer gave the Braves a 4-3 win over the Brewers in the 10th inning on Saturday night at SunTrust Park, he was asked if he felt any extra adrenaline as he faced .

“I guess, you want to go home because we’ve got a day game tomorrow,” Freeman said.

Freeman has a good sense of humor, but his response was a product of the disciplined simple approach he has maintained regardless of whether he’s facing a rookie reliever or somebody like Hader, who, despite allowing homers a little more frequently this year, remains one of the game’s most dominant and intimidating relievers.

“That was two of the best left-handers in the game going one on one,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said after his team won for the seventh time in the past eight games and moved a season-high four games over .500.

After the Brewers produced a pair of fortune-filled hits to erase a ninth-inning lead against , they turned to Hader, who fired 97-mph heaters while recording a pair of strikeouts in a perfect bottom half of the frame. His velocity then dipped, and he paid the price when Freeman led off the 10th and extended his success against left-handers by drilling an elevated 93.7 mph four-seamer over the right-field wall.

“It’s just a name on the back,” Freeman said of Hader. “It’s just another lefty throwing 94-96. You face those guys all the time. We know he throws up in the zone. I was just looking for something up. It didn’t matter if it was a slider or fastball. I just wanted to get my foot down because you know he has the ride on it.”

If it feels like Hader has seemed to be vulnerable more frequently this season, it’s because five of the nine hits he’s surrendered have been home runs. Still, he entered Saturday having limited left-handed hitters to a .090 (10-for-111) batting average and two homers since the start of last season.

But Freeman has become an MVP-caliber player, and he has spent the past few seasons experiencing little trouble against left-handed pitchers. The Braves’ first baseman ranks second in the Majors with a .956 OPS in left vs. left matchups since the start of 2018. The only better mark has been constructed by reigning National League MVP , who barely moved as Freeman’s 391-foot game-ending shot sailed over his head.

Freeman’s shot was just the third homer Hader has allowed in 169 at-bats against left-handed hitters. Two of those home runs have been tallied in 23 at-bats this season.

“That's what happens sometimes when you pitch up in the zone,” Hader said. “You're going to get beat sometimes if you don't execute your pitch. It gives them that advantage when it's up in the zone, gives them an easier chance to get it elevated. But that's just how I pitch. I'm going to stick to my strengths. Sometimes, it's going to happen like that."

Freeman certainly seems to be in a groove, having hit .375 with three homers and a 1.193 OPS over his past eight games. The Braves are also thriving with back at the top of the lineup and enjoying immediate success in the big leagues. Riley has gone 8-for-15 with two homers since being promoted on Wednesday. He’s the first player in Atlanta history to record at least eight hits through his first four games.

Riley’s opposite-field, two-run homer in the sixth inning gave the Braves a lead until Jackson experienced some bad luck in the ninth. was hit by a 2-2 pitch and advanced to third on an opposite-field single that had a .110 expected batting average per Statcast. followed by chopping a game-tying double (.080 XBA) over third baseman ’s head.

But Jackson prevented further damage after being scored upon for just the second time in his past 20 appearances, and Freeman made sure the Braves got to go home happy and early enough to get some rest before Sunday’s series finale.

“You can’t win a division this early, but you can lose one,” Freeman said. “So, these games matter. You’ve got to win one-run games. It was nice to score a lot of runs while winning [Thursday and Friday]. But these are the games you’ve got to win.”