Freeman taking center stage

sports@macon.comApril 2, 2013 

Freddie Freeman doesn’t always get the bright spotlight. He’s not the hometown kid, like Brian McCann or Jason Heyward. He’s not the big offseason acquisition, like B.J. or Justin Upton.

But Freeman, now in his third full season as the Braves’ first baseman, might just be poised to steal the bright lights that go with being a star.

“Greg Walker, our hitting coach, seems to think this guy’s the most talented hitter he’s ever worked with,” said Freeman’s manager, Fredi Gonzalez. “I think the sky’s the limit for him, really.”

That’s pretty high praise coming from his manager, and it might be spot on. Freeman has had two solid seasons in the big leagues. He had 21 home runs and 76 RBI as a rookie in 2011, and then last year, Freeman had 23 home runs and 94 RBI. He probably only has scratched the surface of what he can do.

Remember, Freeman is just 23 years old. He’s about four years away from his so-called prime years as a major league hitter.

It was kind of funny in spring training, as reporters predicted which Atlanta player would have the best season. Freeman’s name was often lost in the shuffle. Heck, I’m guilty, too, as I picked Justin Upton as my MVP pick for the NL.

But the more you think about it, the more you wonder if this is Freeman’s year. He’ll be hitting surrounded by a lot of good players this summer, and the expectation is that many of those players should be on base -- a lot.

If that happens, Freeman, as the No. 4 hitter, might have the most RBI opportunities in the lineup. He might be the one with the gaudy numbers that have him in the conversation for some awards at the end of the season.

Monday night in the season opener, he got off to a great start. Freeman hit a two-run home run to give the Braves their first lead of the season. Then he got a two-out base hit in the third inning to drive in a run, and his productive night helped the Braves beat Philadelphia 7-5.

“Hopefully, that’s just the beginning,” Freeman said. “We’ve got a very balanced lineup, one through eight. So it’s going to be tough for pitchers to get through us.”

The Braves showed Monday night that they are going to hit home runs. Long home runs by Freeman, Dan Uggla and Justin Upton reminded many of the old reruns of “Home Run Derby” show from the 1950s, when they’d match up the likes of Mickey Mantle against Willie Mays to see who could hit the most home runs.

“Sure hope so,” said Uggla, when asked if this home run contest will be a nightly feature of the 2013 team. “We’d love to have a little friendly competition between each other and have it go on all year long. The back of the baseball cards let you know what kind of lineup we have.”

“We swung it like that all spring,” Freeman said. “We put up a lot of runs, and hopefully we can do that throughout the year. You can’t really match up against us, because we’re right-left with power all the way through. We do strike out a lot, but we take pride in putting the ball in play.”

The Braves led the NL with 49 home runs in spring training. Freeman led the team with seven spring home runs. It’s undoubtedly a sign of things to come.

“He’s really starting to be an established young hitter, and I think everybody’s taking notice,” general manager Frank Wren said. “He’s slowly and methodically over the last year-and-a-half become a real force in our lineup. I’m not sure he gets enough credit for what he does, but he’s a big part of it.”

This certainly seems like a team that could challenge the Atlanta record for home runs and runs scored. That happened in 2003, when the Braves hit 235 homers and scored 907 runs for the season (an average of 5.6 per game).

That team had Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, Gary Sheffield, Javy Lopez, Vinny Castilla and Marcus Giles. Those six players all had more than 20 dingers and hit a combined 188 home runs. If Monday is any indication, this year’s Braves’ lineup might be just as dangerous.

It should be an easier season for Freeman, who battled an eye problem last year, along with a jammed left index finger that never completely healed until the offseason. But now, he’s healthier than he’s been in his entire career.

“I feel good,” Freeman said Monday. “I’ve got the goggles when I play the field, hopefully to block out some wind and dirt. When I hit I can’t obviously wear it, because the nose piece kind of gives me a black spot. I felt great out there. My vision is great so far.”

That’s all opposing pitchers need, for Freeman to see the ball better. Chances are it’ll be tough for all of us to keep an eye on balls as he mashes more out of the park. And perhaps then, the spotlight will be even more on the Braves first baseman.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com/. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and e-mail him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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