Healthy Freese finding his form after slump

ST. LOUIS — Cardinals third baseman David Freese spent time during his postgame chat with reporters Thursday night talking about the ups and downs of a season and how players have to learn to deal with both having success and dealing with failure.

The problem is, Freese has yet to really experience the up-and-down roller coaster he referenced. Injuries have plagued the talented hitter, limiting him to less than 100 games in each of the previous three seasons.

Freese hasn’t been in the lineup long enough to have extended hot and cold streaks. And now that he’s healthy and dealing with it for the first time, it’s been a work in progress to find his comfort level.

“I’ve never gone through a full season in the big leagues,” Freese admits. “Whether you’re 29 or 22, there’s an experience factor in there and a learning curve to it and I’m going through it.

“It’s new. It’s been a few years, 2008 I guess, since I played 130 games or so. You have to kind of remember it in a sense and understand that there’s tomorrow and you can come back and fight tomorrow.”

Freese continued a recent resurgence Thursday night with an RBI double and a two-run homer to help the Cardinals beat the Chicago White Sox 5-3. He nearly hit a second home run, launching a deep shot that was caught near the wall in center in the fifth inning.

Both of Freese’s hits went to right-center, a sign that he’s locked in at the plate. It’s also something he hasn’t done much since the first month of the season while stuck in one of the first extended slumps of his career.

“He had a good night for us,” said manager Mike Matheny. “Even his outs were hard. He had the right approach. In batting practice he found something today and you could see that he translated it into the games.

“He hits a missile to right field for an out. That’s where he needs to be and it’s nice to see him get there.”

Following the unforgettable postseason in which Freese took home both the NLCS and World Series MVP last fall, the local product hit .329 the first month of the season and had six home runs and 24 RBI in his first 23 games.

But then came the unfamiliar failures. Starting on May 5 in Houston, Freese had just eight hits in his next 54 at-bats, hitting .148 during a 15-game stretch he wishes he could take back. He hit just two home runs, had five RBI and had 16 strikeouts.

The final blow came on May 20 in Los Angeles, a Sunday night game on the national stage. Freese struck out four times in four at-bats, swinging and missing at eight of the 11 pitches he swung at.

After previously balking when his manager tried to give him a day off, Freese finally caved. It was time for a break, and both parties involved knew it.

“Looking back I think that was definitely a positive,” Freese said of the rare two consecutive off days on May 21-22. “I think it slowed things down a little bit. Baseball is a different breed. You could be 0-for-10, and you have to show up the next day and you could be facing an ace, and then you’re 0-for-14 and you just go down the line.

“Getting two days off was definitely a positive. I wanted to be out there but clearing the head a little bit helped.”

Freese returned to the lineup May 23 in the series finale against San Diego and wasted little time reasserting himself at the plate. He went 2-for-4, hit a home run and had two RBI in the Cardinals’ 6-3 win.

He hasn’t stopped hitting since. In 19 games since the two-day mental break, Freese is hitting .310 with five home runs, 10 extra-base hits, 14 RBI and 13 runs scored. He has six multi-hit games in his past 10 and has raised his average from .257 back to .276.

“I think for me it’s just trying not to do too much,” Freese said. “It sounds easy, but sometimes you get in that box and you want to be Superman and that’s not going to help you out. You have to stay with your plan and try to execute.

“With that said, you’re going to have ups and downs. I think there are a lot of people out there that don’t understand that, but in this clubhouse, we know what a season is like and what this game can do to you. You just have to grind it out.”

Often replaced for defensive purposes and to rest his tender ankles late last season, Freese has already played more complete games this year (48) than all of the regular season last year (41). He’s also on pace to shatter last year’s career high of 97 games played.

And the extra playing time has led to extra exposure, both good and bad. But with Freese continuing to learn on the fly, he’s hoping to learn to ride the waves and become more consistent as the season rolls on.

“I think grinding it out in the big leagues is completely different from Triple-A or college,” Freese said. “It’s completely different because there are no breaks. I think there are certain times when you can coast in the minors and get away with it but up here, especially for me, you have to grind it out every day.

“I just want to be on the field. I’m excited that I’m healthy and I want to be out there and I want to win and do whatever I can to help this team.”

Refreshed and recharged, a healthy Freese appears ready to do just that.