SAN FRANCISCO -- A couple of autograph seekers approached David Freese on Sunday night as he walked along a busy corridor from the Giants' press-conference room to the Cardinals' clubhouse. He and teammate Carlos Beltran had handlers around them for security, and the standard play would have been a friendly wave to the fans or a blank stare forward. It's not really haughty. It's studied self-preservation, a practical approach for athletes accustomed to making this sort of trek to and from press conferences.
Freese should know the drill by now. He stopped and signed anyway. Then he went to the clubhouse and accommodated an international TV reporter who asked him to say the name of her station in Japanese during a greeting to the audience. Freese asked several times for the correct pronunciation, to be sure he got it right, then smiled at the camera and delivered the one foreign word plus a gracious welcome-to-postseason-baseball message in his native tongue.
"I know you guys are far away, but it's the best time of the year in baseball,'' he said. "Thank you so much for watching.''
Clearly, Freese does not realize what he has become. Winning last year's World Series and NLCS MVP awards didn't translate into a sense of stardom. He and Beltran both hit two-run homers on Sunday night in the Cardinals' 6-4 win over the Giants in Game 1 of the NLCS. Beltran has now hit 14 home runs in 29 postseason games and 108 at-bats, a more powerful postseason pace than any other player in major-league history. But in the St. Louis clubhouse, he has to share his Mr. October sash with Freese. The third baseman just finished his first 100-plus-game season in the majors. He now has six homers in 25 postseason games, and he finished the NLDS against Washington with three doubles, a .421 batting average and the third-highest OPS (1.079) of all hitters in the four Division Series. If the Giants aren't emphatically saying, "We can't let David Freese beat us,'' they should be.
San Francisco’s pitchers will also need to figure a way around the Cardinals' tendency to thrive on two-strike counts. Beltran and Freese each homered with two strikes on them.
"It's a beautiful thing when these guys trust themselves when they get to two strikes,'' Cards manager Mike Matheny said. "They can be a little selective early in the count and then they're not going to panic when we get to two strikes. … They all shorten up their swings, and good things happen.''
All winter long, Nationals fans will see Freese checking his swing on a two-out, ninth-inning, 1-2 pitch from closer Drew Storen. If Freese had halted his swing a millisecond later, letting the bat head travel just an inch farther, he would have been home on Sunday night, watching the Nationals host the Giants in Game 1 of the NLCS. But he checked his swing, worked a walk and kept the Cardinals’ season alive. Storen also failed to put away Yadier Molina on a two-strike count, but the Freese checked swing will be remembered as the haunting moment. He was the one who shouldn't have gotten away.
The Rangers know the feeling. One strike away from their first world championship last year, they gave up a two-run, game-tying triple to Freese. He shared a lineup with Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman then. But at the end of the Series, the MVP's Corvette keys went to the latest incarnation of Gene Tenace and David Eckstein.
There really is no such thing as an unlikely World Series MVP. But a 29-year-old making close to baseball's minimum wage can't possibly duplicate his dominance a year later. It's unthinkable ... yet the Giants should be thinking very seriously about it. Freese is almost halfway there.
He said he didn't think that last year's experience gave him more confidence for this postseason. "I think it's allowing me this time around to have more fun,'' Freese said. "I mean, I had a blast last October, but sneaking in [to the playoffs] again the way we did, you understand that you don't get this chance a lot.''
Then he proceeded to describe a team that knows how to embrace moments and doesn't feel pressure to win. It sure sounded as if he were describing looseness and confidence. But if Freese rejects certain labels -- he dismisses the theory of momentum, especially carrying over from one playoff series to another -- who feels a need to correct him?
Even if he whiffs five times in Game 2, commits three errors and trips Beltran on the dugout steps, Freese will remain an autumn wonder. He's much more likely to be saying hello to Singapore and Australia.