After abbreviated 2009 season, Cardinals' Freese healthy and ready for long haul

By Dan O’Neill/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS — The first opening day for a major-league ballplayer is always going to be special. No one would suggest otherwise. But a vibrant smile late Monday afternoon was a dead giveaway that David Freese especially enjoyed his second opening day at Busch Stadium.

Last spring, Freese rode in the ceremonial motorcade, received the ceremonial introduction, then took an un-ceremonial seat on the bench as Brian Barden started at third base. Barden went 0 for three and the Cardinals lost a chilly opener 6-4 to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

This time, again with family members and friends in the stands, the St. Louis-raised Freese didn’t just take part in the pre-game pomp, he took part in the game as well.

Starting at third, Freese contributed a double among two hits and played flawless defense as the Cardinals dominated the Houston Astros 5-0.

“I had a blast,” Freese said. “It was cool. Being part of opening-day ceremonies is always fun, it’s my second one. But starting is something special.”

Many ensuing days have a chance to be special for Freese. Last spring, when both Barden and infielder Joe Thurston got off to fast starts, it became evident Freese would not get the playing opportunity anticipated. He was gone by April 22, optioned to Class AAA Memphis.

A month later, it became evident Freese was still bothered by discomfort in his left ankle, injured in a car accident the previous January. Surgery was required, and Freese’s hope of returning to St. Louis in midsummer evaporated.

This spring, Freese is healthy and the Cardinals are more invested. Although Felipe Lopez can play the position, third is not his best locale. He is most valued for his availability to play several positions; ditto for outfielder-infielder Joe Mather.

For his part, while he is careful not to put the Clydesdale before the wagon, so to speak, Freese is determined to stick. “We got a good team,” Freese said. “Not taking anything for granted, we’ve got to keep working hard. But we’ve got a good team.”

Batting eighth in a lineup dotted with Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, Ryan Ludwick and Colby Rasmus, Freese is off to a decent start with the bat, hitting .273 with four RBIs in six games. Nothing untoward there.

That said, the first week has been slightly adventurous defensively. After a solid exhibition season, Freese has been caught betwixt and between on a couple of plays in this still-infant season. There have been three official errors and another awkward moment or two.

But before the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately crowd gets too excited, it might be fair to point out that the season is seven games old. That leaves 155 to play.

During his continuously healthy 2008 season, Freese had 120 games at third for Memphis, fashioning a .967 fielding percentage on 306 chances and 10 errors. He had a .941 percentage in his fragmented, 56-game season of 2009. Memphis manager Chris Maloney was slightly miffed to even be asked about Freese’s defensive credibility.

Maloney managed Freese over his two Memphis seasons, and he has zero reservations about his abilities. “He’s a very good defensive third baseman; I’ve seen him make some tremendous plays,” Maloney said, after Memphis won 7-6 at Iowa on Tuesday. “I don’t think six or seven games is a fair sample. Everybody is kind of jumping the gun a little bit here.”

When the Cardinals won the World Series in 2006, Scott Rolen played 146 games at third, had a .965 percentage and made 15 errors on 428 total chances. The reference is not to suggest the rookie Freese is a clone of the highly decorated Rolen, but it suggests the difference is not as radical as one week of play might portray.

“David Freese is one of the better third basemen I have seen, period,” Maloney emphasized. “He can play third base. He’s got great hands. He’s got a good first step. The stuff he did for me is as good as it gets. It’s almost, almost, Rolen-esqe.

“He’s tougher than a piece of rawhide; I love that kid to death. We got ourselves a heck of a third baseman in St. Louis.”

Freese has a quality in common with several revered third basemen of the Cardinals’ past, players like Rolen, Ken Reitz, Terry Pendleton and Ken Boyer. You may have seen Freese back up on a ground ball, but you won’t see him back down.

“We know he has enough talent, but you have to show toughness,” Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. “And he never tries to hide. That’s critical if you’re going to be any good. He’s going to be fine.”

Freese, who turns 27 later this month, is keeping things in perspective. He has spent four minor-league seasons getting here. He has dealt with offseason adversity — an alcohol-related arrest last winter, a car accident the winter before. He has experienced ups and downs enough to know they are part of the process. The game’s pace is not rapid; it is relentless.

“That’s baseball,” Freese said. “I’m just trying to look at the big picture with everything. We’re all human. It does get in your head a little bit, whether it’s at the plate, or in the field or at the mound.

“But you just have to learn from what’s happening and just try to keep progressing. Because the bottom line is they’re counting on you when you’re out on the field to produce and come through.”

With his ability to remain quiet at the plate, to wait on pitches and drive them to the gaps, Freese has been a destructive righthanded hitter in the minors. In 187 games with Memphis, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Freese had 44 doubles, three triples and 36 home runs. And with power-alley dimensions of 360 feet and 373 feet, AutoZone Park is not an easy mark.

Stands to reason, as the season unfolds and Freese settles in and finds his major league mojo, his best baseball is yet to come. Being a bookend to a talented batting lineup, Freese doesn’t need to force the issue. He is adopting a less-is-more approach.

“When I get up there, more times than not, there are going to be guys on base,” Freese said. “So I just have to keep it simple and do what I can to get guys across the plate.”

The “hot corner” in your home major league town presents unique challenges. The pressures, the distractions are magnified. Cardinals like Mike Shannon, Ken Oberkfell and Scott Cooper had various degrees of success and struggles with it. One week in, Freese isn’t discouraged by a wrinkle or two that needs ironing.

“When things happen, you just have to turn it around,” Freese said. “Short memory, that’s the key. This game will get you if you let things linger.”

So forgive David Freese if those memories of opening day don’t linger past his day off Tuesday. This season, he’s set on building a scrapbook.