Three Cuts: Freeman’s big night pushes Braves past Phillies

Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman finished a triple short of hitting for the cycle in Friday night's win against the Phillies.

The Atlanta Braves got past Phillies starter Kyle Kendrick, a noted and surprising thorn in their side in recent seasons, with a 4-2 win on Friday night in Philadelphia. Atlanta jumped all over Kendrick in the first inning, building a quick three-run lead that would suffice for emerging Atlanta star Julio Teheran for the rest of the night. Here are three observations from the game, starting with that fast start:

Freddie Freeman used his signature to torch the Phillies on Friday night.

Known as one of the premier first-pitch hitters in the game, the Braves’ first baseman did not waste any time — or pitches — in the box against starter Kyle Kendrick, pouncing on the first two balls that were thrown his way. The first gave the Braves the immediate lead, a three-run shot Freeman planted in center field for his 13th home run of the year. The second extended the lead and put him well on his way to challenging for the cycle. He finished his night 3 for 5 with a homer, a double, four RBI and two strikeouts (although, with his speed, he was never a true threat for that cycle).

It was Freeman’s fourth three-hit game in his past 11 outings and, if it wasn’t before, it is now safe to say that he’s right back on track offensively. "I think we just came out and we were aggressive all night. We were looking for strikes. We got them. We started swinging and we weren’t missing in the first couple innings," Freeman said. "When you’ve got Julio pitching, you want to go ahead and get that first W out of the way. He was unbelievable tonight. We were able to get him some runs early so he could settle in."

One of the key aspects of the Braves’ offensive struggles this season went overlooked for a long period of time earlier this season: the fact that Freeman, a deserving top-five NL MVP candidate in 2013, was not right at the plate. His numbers were down following a hot start, and the effects were evident. After yet another night where the Braves scored just four runs total, all coming off Freeman’s bat, they still rank 29th in runs scored by a comfortable margin.

Of course, Freeman’s slumps are not like most of the other guys’ rough patches on this roster. Where names like B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla have hit prolonged slumps that last for weeks and even months, Freeman just happens to be less dominant. The extra-base hits fall off, the power numbers drop, the two-out situational hitting — the attribute that proved so vital for the Braves in many tightly contested games last season — isn’t quite as devastating for opposing pitchers. But though Freeman’s slumps aren’t nearly as apparent, they can be just as damaging from the No. 3 spot in the order.

So with him apparently back in the right state of mind, perhaps similar to the "They Have Nothing To Get Me Out" phase from earlier in 2014, for the crucial back stretch of the first-half schedule, it’s now all the more imperative for Atlanta to figure out the spots ahead of him. (The Braves ran out B.J. Upton and Andrelton Simmons, statistically the worst hitters in the everyday lineup, at Nos. 1 and 2 on Friday night with an ample amount of success. Best of all: both were on-base for Freeman’s first-inning homer.) Atlanta’s 4-2 win was Exhibit A on how Freeman can completely change a game at the plate, especially when the team is afforded a guy like Teheran on the mound.

And while the MVP race is still in its infancy, his first-half numbers year-over-year are practically identical:

So, for argument’s sake, you could make the case that despite his extended issues at the plate, Freeman has been even better individually in ’14. Any prior slump is now in the rearview mirror. That seems borderline implausible considering the offense’s production, but, as his RBI numbers indicate, he just hasn’t been producing with runners on — perhaps because he’s seeing fewer such opportunities.

This is the perfect time for Freeman and the rest of the offense to get going, though. With Friday’s win, the Braves once again are knotted with the Washington Nationals at the top of the NL East standings. If they can start hitting, building a much-needed lead is possible.

It’s almost as if Teheran’s teammates are beginning to publicly acknowledge just how much confidence they have with him on the mound. Just see Freeman’s comments above. That’s the type of talk typically saved for — don’t look now — but No. 1 starters: "When Pitcher X is on the mound, we want to take advantage, etc."

Atlanta could not have handpicked a better spoil for Kendrick, who silenced the Braves’ bats during his last outing in Atlanta to continue his career success against his division foes, and it paid off handsomely. Teheran capped off one of the best months of his professional career with a stifling performance against the Phillies, allowing just one earned run over seven innings of work. He struck out nine batters, the third time he’s reached that mark in his past six starts. And as his K numbers have skyrocketed, so has his calculated value.

Though he’s carried the de facto No. 1 role since making the start on Opening Day, Teheran found himself lacking in some key pitching areas this season, falling far behind some of the top pitchers in the National League. He trailed teammate Aaron Harang in the WAR and FIP categories for much of the year. But after five June starts, he’s taken his rightful place atop the Braves’ pecking order in both perception and production.

Braves-Phillies: Saturday doubleheader

His 2014 numbers not only show gradual improvement, but also how much ground he’s covered since his very strong rookie season: 17 starts, 119 innings pitched, 4.48-to-1 K-BB ratio, 2.34 ERA and 3.22 FIP. That’s the seventh-best ERA among qualified MLB pitchers. At this rate, he could double his rookie WAR this season. Other pitchers have been better this month, but the list is a short and impressive one, including the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, David Price and Jordan Zimmermann. The Braves will gladly take a guy in that company every fifth day.

And regardless of how well Freeman continues to hit, the verdict has not changed on the team’s contract extension spree: no other young player the franchise locked offers near as much value per dollar as Teheran. If he’s going to be this effective over the next six or seven years, he’s going to be an absolute steal for Frank Wren and his staff.

The offense still cannot find its explosiveness, but the wins are coming. At this point, with an offense that is showing very few signs of significant improvement (in the month of June, the offense still ranked 24th in runs scored entering Friday’s games), the win-loss column is all that matters. And, as we’ve discussed before in this space, no other stretch to date has set up so perfectly for Atlanta.

The Astros, Phillies, Diamondbacks, Mets and Cubs aren’t scaring many teams and they certainly aren’t expecting to challenge for playoff spots this season, so it’s hard to ask for a better set-up to wipe away all the early struggles this team has faced. (They’ve been a sub-.500 team since April.)

And thus far, the Braves are off to a good start to the 19-game stint.

Atlanta has won three of its first four games during the stretch, and despite a lackluster performance in the Astros finale, the Phillies win puts them right back on the right track entering Saturday’s doubleheader. A .500 record through these 19 games isn’t going to cut it. Winning three out of every four would more closely resemble a contender’s resume. So far, so good for Gonzalez’s club.