ST. LOUIS — Twice, David Freese had departed the batter’s box with his head down. His first attempt had ended with a baseball landing in a right fielder’s glove. His second with a swing and a miss.
By his third try, he was due.
The St. Louis Cardinals’ third baseman hit a Jorge De La Rosa pitch hard toward first, a scorched grounder that found the Busch Stadium grass after it nicked the glove of Colorado Rockies’ first baseman Jordan Pachecho.
Just like that, Freese spoiled the no-hitter De La Rosa had protected through seven and two third innings. But he had also done something less noticeable. In an 8-2 loss, he had taken another quiet step out from under the cloud of questions that hangs over his hitting.
“I’m getting better,” Freese said after the game. “I’m just trying to keep it going. Obviously, I dug myself in a pretty big hole. Thankfully, it’s not a one-month season.”
The hole was the early-season slump that limited Freese to four hits in 33 at-bats over 10 games. At the end, he had been to the plate 16 consecutive times without a hit. The struggle landed him on the bench for the last game in April, as well as the first in May.
In the past, Freese tweaked his swing when his numbers went down. Not this time. He said there were no fundamental flaws to deal with. Instead, he worked on what was between his ears instead.
“It’s all about your mental approach,” Freese said. “I learned a long time ago, it’s usually not your swing. It’s what you’re swinging at. That’s probably 95 percent of the case, especially with guys in the big leagues. We all have good swings, but if you expand the zone, if you try and do too much … I think that’s my big problem, trying to get caught up being someone you’re not. Just play your game, and there will be plenty of opportunities to help your team.”
A reminder to play within himself appears to have helped. Freese hit .375 in his first series back after the benching. In the nine games since his return, he’s had eight singles and a double.
On Sunday, he improved to .222/.300/.259. That’s still a far cry from his career average: .291/.358/.433. But it’s a heck of a lot better than the .163/.255/.204 Freese reached at the depths of the slump.
“He’s taking better swings,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “He’s more patient. He’s softer. He’s quiet at the plate. You can tell he’s getting some confidence.”
Carlos Beltran has noticed the gradual turnaround as well. The Cardinals’ right fielder thinks his teammate will be just fine.
“Believe me,” Beltran said. “Hitting is a feeling. So, there will be a day where he comes to the ball park and feels good at the plate … I believe that right now, he is getting better at-bats than before. That really means he is seeing the ball better. Before, I think he wasn’t seeing the ball better. When you don’t see the ball, you chase a lot of bad pitches … He’s going to be fine, man. He’s a very important part of this ball club.”
Freese, his teammates and his manager all share the same confidence. It grows in small, but noticeable signs, like a hard-hit single that breaks up a Colorado pitcher’s no-hitter.
“He’s in the right direction,” Matheny said. “Just take one step at a time, and today was another big step for him.” You can follow Ben Frederickson on Twitter (@Ben_Fred) and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org