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David O'BrienDavid O'Brien

Freeman’s out of slump, just in time to wreck Nats

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WASHINGTON – Nationals pitchers must’ve cringed when they went over the Braves scouting reports entering this series and noticed that Freddie Freeman had begun to heat up after a rare extended slump by the big first baseman. So much for their hopes of facing a struggling Freeman and getting through a series without him doing damage.

Freeman had three hits including a first-inning homer off Stephen Strasburg in Friday night’s 6-4, 13-inning win in D.C., the Braves’ sixth win in seven games against the Nationals this season and 12th win in their past 15 games at Nationals Park.

Freddie Freeman hugs Evan Gattis after Freeman's 1st-inning homer off the Nats' Stephen Strasburg on Friday. Gattis has been on fire for weeks, and now Freeman is heating up again.

Freddie Freeman hugs Evan Gattis after Freeman’s 1st-inning homer off the Nats’ Stephen Strasburg on Friday. Gattis has been on fire for weeks, and now Freeman is heating up again. (AP photo)

That 12-3 record in Washington is part of a stretch that’s seen the Braves dominate the Nationals, going 24-7 with a 2.01 ERA against them going back to Aug. 22, 2012. Braves pitchers and Freeman’s bat have played very big parts in that remarkable stretch against Atlanta’s top division rival.

Freeman is 17-for-33 (.515) with five doubles, three homers and six RBIs in eight games against the Nationals this season, and has hit .380 with 21 extra-base hits (seven homers), 29 RBIs and a .433 OBP and .634 slugging percentage in his past 37 games against them dating to June 29, 2012. He has 18 multi-hit games in his past 35 games against the Nationals.

Freeman is 9-for-20 with two homers and five walks against Strasburg, who struggles against the Braves like he does against no other team, going 3-5 with a 4.04 ERA in 14 starts including 0-2 in seven starts over the past two seasons (Strasburg was in line for another loss Friday before Craig Kimbrel blew a 4-2 lead in the ninth inning).

Freeman homered on a 2-2 changeup, only the second homer that Strasburg has allowed in the more than 370 changeups he’s thrown this season, according to The Washington Post.

The Braves like to talk about “grinding out” at-bat when they’re going well, and they did that in a big way against Strasburg, forcing the hard-throwing righty to throw so many pitches in the early innings that it assured another earlier-than-he-hoped exit against the Braves. Strasburg left after allowing a season-high nine hits and four runs on 107 pitches in six innings.

“Somehow we always put up good at-bats against the Nationals,” said Andrelton Simmons, who had two hits off Strasburg including an RBI single in the fourth inning, and also had a 12-pitch at-bat in the 11th against Tyler Clippard. “I don’t know why, but we get locked in a little bit. And hopefully we keep doing it whenever we’re playing division teams.”

Strasburg threw 94 pitches in just 4 1/3 innings of an April 5 home loss to the Braves in which he was charged with eight hits, three walks and six runs (three earned), and in seven home starts between that one and last night he went 5-0 with a 1.72 ERA, working at least  seven innings in each of the three starts in which he threw more than 100 pitches.

Like we said, Strasburg struggles against the Braves like no other team.

“Yeah, we got his pitch count up,” Freeman said. “When a guy throws hard like that you’re not going to always square up balls; you’re going to foul a lot of balls off and not be able to catch up sometime. For him it’s like a  plus-and-minus kind of thing.”

A Catch-22, if you will.

“Because if you make contact early he can keep his pitch count down,” Freeman said. “But when you throw so hard and have so many different pitches, we’re just up there battling, just fouling things off. We had a couple of 0-2 hits that he probably he wishes he could have those pitches back. When he made a mistake we were able to hit it today.”

The Braves got three consecutive one-out singles in the fourth inning from Jason Heyward, Chris Johnson and Simmons, whose knock put the Braves back ahead 2-1.

Heyward pushed that lead to 4-2 when he lined a two-run double over the head of right fielder Jayson Werth in fifth. Heyward also had two hits off Strasburg to make him 11-for-26 (.423) with a homer against the the vaunted pitcher.

Strasburg is the NL strikeout leader and added eight K’s Friday, which was three fewer than Braves counterpart Mike Minor had in seven innings. Freeman and Heyward have a combined 20 hits and seven walks with a modest eight strikeouts – four apiece – in 46 career at-bats against Strasburg.

Minor outpitched Strasburg, allowing only two runs, seven hits and two walks with those 11 striikeouts in seven innings in a strong bonce-back performance after giving up 11 hits in each of his previous two starts.

“Minor was awesome,” Freeman said. “He had that front-door two-seamer working, he was freezing right-handers. Back-door cutters. He was commanding both sides of the plate. He was awesome.”

As for Freeman, the Nats have seen more than their share of awesome from him. If they’d faced the Braves a little over a week ago, they would have gotten him during one of the worst stretches of his career. But now, he’s back to doing what the Braves have come to expect from the guy who’s been their best hitter over the past three seasons.

In 50 games from April 20 to June 14, Freeman hit .225 (43-for-191) with 18 extra-base hits, a .327 OBP and .387 slugging percentage.  In the last 24 games of that period, Freeman slumped at .189 (17-for-90) with nine extra-base hits, a .330 OBP and a .344 slugging percentage.

But in six games since then, the first baseman is 12-for-29 (.414) with eight extra-base hits (five doubles, one triple, one homer) and a .759 slugging percentage.

Even without Justin Upton, who has slumped for three weeks and been out of the lineup for the past three games with an illness, the Braves are suddenly getting a lot of production from several hitters in the middle of their lineup.

Catcher Evan Gattis is the hottest hitter in the league right now, batting .387 with eight homers and 21 RBIs during a 19-game hitting streak through Friday, the longest by a player who was the starting catcher for every game of a hitting streak since Jason Kendall’s 20-game streak for the Pirates in 2004.

Chris Johnson, after a dreadful start to the season, was 21-for-51 (.412) with six RBIs in his past 12 games before Saturday.

And the Brave who’s been the steadiest hitter in the lineup since early May is Jason Heyward, who’s hit .311 (47-for-151) with 12 extra-base hits (six homers), 21 RBIs, a .388 OBP and .477 slugging percentage in his past 37 games.

In his past 23 games, Heyward has hit .300 with five homers, 18 RBIs and a .520 slugging percentage.

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez was asked about Freeman being in the middle of things Friday night.

“Freeman, Gattis, Heyward, Chris Johnson…” he said. “I thought Simmons had some of the best at-bats I’ve seen him have in a long time. That’s a really formidable middle of the lineup that we’ve got going right now.”

Of course. Just ask the Nationals, they wouldn’t have expected anything else when they faced the Braves, regardless of how much Atlanta had struggled in recent weeks.

• Let’s close with a terrific tune about Baltimore, which is, after all, near Washington.  “Streets of Baltimore” is a heavily covered country song written by Tompall Glaser and Harlan Howard. Gram Parsons did one of the other killer versions, but I like Bobby Bare’s even more.  Listen to it by clicking here.

“STREETS OF BALTIMORE” by Bobby Bare

I sold the farm to take my woman where she longed to be
We left our kin and all our friends back there in Tennssee
I bought those oneway tickets she had often begged me for
And they took us to the streets of Baltimore.Sierra Exif JPEG

Her heart was filled with laughter when she saw those city lights
She said the prettiest place on earth is Baltimore at night
Oh well, a man feels proud to give his woman what she’s longing for
And I kind of liked the streets of Baltimore.

Well, I got myself a factory job, I ran an old machine
I bought a little cottage in a neighborhood serene
Yet every night when I came home with every muscle sore
She would drag me through the streets of Baltimore.

Well, I did my best to bring her back to what she used to be
But I soon learned she loved those bright lights much more than she loved me
Now I’m a going back on that same train that brought me here before
While my baby walks the streets of Baltimore.

Yes, my baby walks the streets of Baltimore…

 

 

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