You can tell Freddie Freeman got a hold of one when, soon after the crack of the bat, his tongue reflexively sticks out of his mouth. In those moments, the Braves slugger is like the painter applying the finishing touches to a work of art.
There, that ought to do it.
The tongue appeared as Freeman completed his career masterstroke, a go-ahead home run against the Dodgers in Game 3 of the National League Division Series Sunday night at SunTrust Park. The sixth-inning solo shot, Freeman’s first career home run in the postseason, sent the Braves to a 6-5 victory over the Dodgers.
The homer off Dodgers lefty Alex Wood came after the Braves had blown a 5-0 lead. It prevented the Dodgers from finishing off the Braves in the best-of-five series. It was the Braves’ best hitter delivering a big moment when they needed it most.
“It means a lot. It does,” Freeman said from the post-game podium. “It's good to be sitting up here in this kind of situation, but hopefully we'll have some more big moments during this postseason and this isn't the only one.”
That understated answer is typical for Freeman. He’s a fine ballplayer who speaks softly while swinging a big stick. But, earlier, Freeman’s dispassionate demeanor slipped aside and he allowed himself to behave like a man who had just hit the biggest home run of his life.
Before Freeman began his trot he turned to the Braves dugout, pumped both fists and let out a scream. It was so loud that Freeman’s teammates said they could hear it over the roar of fans.
For most ballplayers that would be a relatively muted celebration. For Freeman it was unexpected, even by him.
“I don't really know what happened,” Freeman said. “They showed me the replay after the game, and I guess I was pretty excited after I hit it. I am not one (to show emotion), but that was a big moment, put us ahead, so kind of emotions took over.”
It was cathartic for the Braves. There would be no shame in them losing this series after they’d made an unexpected run to the NL East title. They weren’t supposed to make it this far, and they aren’t supposed to beat the Dodgers, the NL’s one super team.
But, under the circumstances of this series, a sweep would have been a gut punch for the Braves. They lost twice in Los Angeles while failing to score. In Game 3, they finally broke through against Dodgers right-hander Walker Buehler, only to give back the five-run lead.
Freeman would have carried the weight of a sweep. Before this series, he played down the importance of his role. There was good reason for that. Freeman had a great year, but so did Ronald Acuna. Several other Braves hitters did their parts.
But everybody knows Freeman is The Guy for the Braves. If they were going to at least take a game from this Dodgers juggernaut, Freeman almost certainly would have to deliver in big moments.
The fans at SunTrust knew it. They made it clear with the “Fred-die!” chants when Freeman stepped into the box for his first at-bat.
After Game 2 Freeman hinted that he knows it, too. In the first inning of that game Freeman had a chance to drive home Acuna with two outs but he grounded out. Freeman said things might have been different against Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw if he’d delivered an RBI.
This time, Freeman came through.
“He always does,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said.
Freeman got his chance after the Dodgers left the bases loaded in the top of the sixth against Braves rookie right-hander Touki Toussaint. Freeman was due up next for the Braves. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts called on Wood, one of the many players the Braves traded away during their rebuild while Freeman stayed.
Wood struck out Freeman in the ninth inning of Game 1. Freeman was looking for the same pitch in the rematch.
“I thought he would go to his out pitch, and I was kind of looking for something up and he gave me a slider and I was able to get him,” Freeman said.
It was a dramatic homer in a bizarre game.
Buehler, one of the best pitchers in the majors this season, rarely walks batters. But, with two outs in the second inning, he walked Braves pitcher Sean Newcomb on four pitches to force in a run. Acuna took three balls and a pitch that was called a strike but wasn’t, before smashing a grand slam.
That 5-0 Braves lead was gone by the fifth inning. In the sixth, Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp was called out on a play at the plate, but replays showed that catcher Kurt Suzuki’s tag may have been late. Inexplicably, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts didn’t challenge the call.
In the ninth inning Dodgers slugger Manny Machado struck out on a pitch that was way outside and in the dirt. The wild pitch moved runners to second and third with two outs before Braves closer Arodys Vizcaino preserved the victory by striking out Brian Dozier.
Amid all that weirdness, the Braves won by relying on what’s normal. Freeman has been their best hitter for four years, and one of the best in the NL for longer than that. He provided the biggest moment of his career when the Braves needed it most.
“It’s always him,” Snitker said. “He’s the guy we count on.”